Friday, May 29, 2009

The Brothers Bloom: Where Is Your Soul's Ass, Anyway?

"I think you have a big hunk of petrified crap up your soul's ass." So says Rachel Weisz to Adrien Brody in Rian Johnson's new caper movie, The Brothers Bloom. Johnson previously directed the interesting low-budget high school-based "film noir" Brick.

I say this is a caper movie, but it's definitely a different kind of caper movie. The typical representative of the genre--The Italian Job or the "Ocean's" series--deals with the pursuit of a MacGuffin, and the plot usually undergoes a number of twists and turns, sometimes in an attempt to fool the viewer (e.g. Ocean's Twelve). There's usually stuff about the people and how their interpersonal relationships as thieves and conmen are affected, but this is generally baggage that slows the shenanigans down.

The Brothers Bloom turns this on convention on its ear by centering all the action around Adrien Brody's development. The capers are essentially incidental to the story. This is way better than it sounds. In fact, the Boy and I think it's the best 2009 movie we've seen so far.

The story is about Stephen and Bloom, who are shuttled from foster home to foster home, town to town, until they finally find their calling running elaborate cons. Stephen (Ruffalo) is the planning genius, putting little themes and symbols into their games, while Bloom (Brody) is the sensitive one--the people person who makes the confidence part of the con game work.

The problem is that Bloom is sensitive, and a romantic, and he can't ever have the one thing the true romantic really craves: genuine human contact. Since he makes contact through false premises (with less than pure motivations), he can't have a true loving connection. This makes him despondent.

Of course, Brody broods well, and not in a monotone way. (That is, his brooding here seems different from, say, his brooding in The Darjeeling Limited.) As his older brother, Ruffalo gives a really sublime performance. Stephen is clearly a smooth operator, intellectual and calculating, yet he's not motivated by money. He loves the game; he also sees himself as providing entertainment, moral lessons, artistic resonance, even.

The perfect con, he says, is the one where everyone gets what they want.

This is his ethical code, really, and his failure is that he can't give Bloom what he wants. If the caper movie is usually cold, this one is the very antithesis. By trying to help him survive, Stephen has turned Bloom into a pathetic, self-loathing character who seems unclear who or what he is. Stephen, for all his apparent glibness and devil-may-care attitude, actually seems to deeply care about Bloom.

Or...does he? This is what Bloom wrestles with. He provides sincerity and depth for the con game, so is Stephen just using him? We quickly see that he's completely the wrong type to be a grifter. To quote Teddy from Memento, that's why he's so good at it.

The brothers work with a mysterious Japanese woman known as Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, last seen largely naked in 2006's Babel). Kikuchi is excellent in this film, as a kind of animé-ish Harpo Marx. I have no idea if she can actually speak English, but the device of not having her speak means both that she can remain mysterious and we're spared a lot of (what would have been) tedious dialogue.

The mark for the movie is a millionaire shut-in played by Rachel Weisz. She's a woman who, through various circumstances, lives in isolation but is also hyper-competent in most regards. All her time has been devoted to acquiring various skills, except conversational skills. Almost like her character from "The Mummy", though very well realized and not cartoonish at all.

I sort of run hot and cold on Ms. Weisz, or maybe just some of her movies rub me the wrong way (I'm looking at you Constant Gardener!), but she's also positively exquisite (in an entirely different way from Kikuchi). Her character is that of an essentially young woman coning out of her shell, and she buoys the movie tremendously. The "crap" line quoted above comes off charmingly sweet and even endearing when she says it.

She embraces adventure (sometimes in a surprisingly sensual way) and brings to the forefront the film's primary thesis. To wit, in the world of human feelings and relationships, how fake is an illusion that everyone believes?

How much, in fact, is life itself a con game?

This is an honest-to-goodness feel good comedy! As mopey as Bloom is, there are enough laughs and light-heartedness to make you feel good about the proceedings. Suspense and concern are not sacrificed. Instead, the characters care about Bloom--and we do, too--and try to get him out of his funk.

Doesn't sound like a caper movie at all, does it?

Just for good measure, the cast is rounded out with Maximilian Schell and Robbie Coltrane. Johnson's cousin Nathan Johnson is back with the score--which I didn't notice. (That's often a good sign.) And the whole thing feels just right at 1:45 (minus credits). It could've been shorter, but only by cheating us out of the excellent ending and giving us a more Ocean-y/Sting-y one.

Funny without being silly or campy, profound without being heavy, well plotted without being fake, adult without being crude--the line quoted at the top is the crudest thing in the movie--and easily the best drawn new characters this year.

So, this is my first likely top 10 movie of the year. It's unlikely that this film won't make it--nothing else from 2009 has my unreserved approval. Of course, today Up comes out, so this may not be in my #1 slot for long.

Random Update #1: There was one kind of weird thing about this movie. Weisz, who does an excellent American accent, has a nasal resonance that reminds me very strongly of Kathryn Erbe. Ruffalo, meanwhile, wears a long black coat, has the slightly unshaven look, and somewhat similar cadence and look of Vincent D'Onofrio. So, every now and again, I got this weird "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" vibe.

Random Update #2: I didn't praise the costumes and sets, and I really should have. This is clearly a movie taking place in modern times, yet the Brothers Bloom wear hats and long coats that evoke the early 20th century. Some of the sets seem very '20s and others seem sort of '40s. Part of the con involves traveling by steamer, for crying out load. This was a very nice touch and gave the movie a timeless feel.

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