One keeps waiting for 36-year-old Adrien Brody to capitalize on his unexpected Best Actor Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist and do some mature work that really moves us. Instead, he gets stuck running around in overactive action films (King Kong) or playing soulfully perplexed, hangdoggy young men in arch, belabored “quirky” indies like The Darjeeling Limited, Dummy and the new The Brothers Bloom. It feels like a case of arrested development.
Brody’s latest is a internationally set, con-artist caper movie so overly written in an attempt to be tricky-clever in a dated Usual Suspects way that it is almost mummified by its own artifice. Even the best con-artist movies struggle to keep our disbelief suspended, since their plot lines are so convoluted. But the best — these include recent films like David Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men — get by on well-drawn characters and screenwriting smarts that keep us engaged while we’re watching.
Bloom, however, gets stuck with Brody and Mark Ruffalo endlessly testing each other as the sniping conman Bloom brothers, while we’re left outside whatever they’re feeling and doing. It is somewhat saved by a jubilantly happy, giddy comic turn by Rachel Weisz.
Writer/director Rian Johnson previously made the effective Brick, a drug-dealing noir set among highschool students. It managed to be both a self-conscious homage and a good little thriller in its own right.
But that movie also had a problem. As the violence increased as the plot got more involved, you began to get queasy about the very thing that Johnson seemed to find most novel: These were high-school kids being brutalized and it felt real.
Despite its semi-A-list cast, his sophomore film really shows that lack of feeling. There’s an obvious nod to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, since Bloom starts with Ricky Jay narrating the story of the brothers’ eccentric, semi-legendary origins: As unwanted foster-care children, they developed a knack for cons against other school kids, conspiring to win small bets.
After that intro, they are presented as childlike-adults, part of a loosely affiliated international jet set of hustlers and criminals. One of the others is an eye-patch-wearing Russian mentor named Diamond Dog, played by Maximilian Schell. (Did Johnson prepare for this by watching cartoons? Maybe Rocky & Bullwinkle?)
You really don’t believe Ruffalo (as the mastermind Stephen Bloom) and Brody (just Bloom — could his first name be Leopold?) belong in this world that Johnson has invented. Maybe that’s because their often dolorously stuffy attire seems like a joke. And it doesn’t help that they have a hokey sidekick named Bang Bang, who barely talks but handles explosives well, played by a poorly used Rinko Kikuchi, an Oscar nominee from Babel.
But while the whole thing should be hopelessly dreary, Weisz shows up to have some fun with the film. Her character, a seemingly reclusive and lonely heiress named Penelope Stamp who lives in a New Jersey castle, is waiting to live life to its fullest. And she would seem to be able to be good at it, given her talent for mastering strange, daring hobbies that would seem beyond her capabilities. Like juggling chainsaws.
The story line is that she’s supposed to become the Bloom brothers’ easy mark. Their plan, as hatched by Stephen, is to deceive her into thinking she is joining them in an exciting, globetrotting smuggling escapade. Or is she? Or are they? Or, just possibly, might romance ensue and complicate everything?
Do we care? Thanks to Weisz, we almost do. She seems to really get a kick from goofing around in this silly, largely purposeless movie. One wonders why, since she like Brody is also an Oscar winner — Best Supporting Actress in The Constant Gardener. Maybe it’s because she’s been stuck in even worse movies than The Brothers Bloom, the lugubrious The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, and knows the only way to make it through bad movies is to have a good laugh. And she has a great one. Grade: C-
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