The more I see and hear of Rian Johnson, the more impressed I get. I saw Brick a few years ago and didn't know what to make of it before it just kept growing and growing on me. I enjoyed Looper even while discussing the many flaws that became obvious as the end credits began to roll (flaws that didn't stop me from buying the movie as soon as it was released on Bluray). And now I have been utterly won over by The Brothers Bloom, a charming con movie with a great cast and a taste for the theatrical.
Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the brothers, two characters who discover the art of a good con at a very early age. Ruffalo is the elder of the two, Stephen, and he loves to plan things so well that when they happen it's all real. His perfect con would be one that really unfurls itself in a completely natural way and one where everyone involved gets what they want. His brother Bloom, on the other hand, wants to put his conning days behind him. He's confused and unhappy, despite the exciting life he leads with Stephen and their near-mute accomplice, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). Stephen doesn't want to lose the company of his brother and so he comes up with that movie standard, one last big job. The mark this time around is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a rich young woman with far too much time on her hands and not enough to hold her interest. Bloom, despite himself, warms to the idea and it's not long before he's in character once more and helping a beautiful woman to get some excitement in her life while losing some of her money. Because everyone should get what they want.
Over the years, a great con movie has ultimately become as hard to pull off as any actual con scheme. I suppose it can easily be argued that the con movie is always a con anyway, attempting to wrong-foot the viewer whenever possible, but still leaving them entertained and feeling good about having one pulled over on them (everyone gets what they want). The grandfather of the con movie is, of course, The Sting, but there are many other greats to check out, with personal favourites of mine being The Grifters (if you haven't seen it already then do so ASAP), Matchstick Men and House Of Games (the directorial debut of the great David Mamet). These movies all do a fantastic job, but they also add to the pile of references that movie viewers have to choose from, making each subsequent con movie that little bit harder to get right. People know what to look out for, they know to stay mistrustful of everything and they know how things have panned out in the past.
This is why writer-director Johnson excels with his own contribution to the subgenre. The Brothers Bloom seems to acknowledge right from the very beginning that the well-known history and film presence of cons can make it hard to come up with anything completely fresh, but then it ploughs ahead anyway and wins you over thanks to the performances, the style of the film and a real sense for the theatrical. Mark Ruffalo may play a character who wants to tell a great story, and wants that story to unfold as if it's a natural thing instead of a story being told, but he feels very much like an outlet for the director to voice his hopes and dreams. He's a storyteller in search of the perfect story, which is surely what every writer-director seeks throughout their career.
Mixing comedy and some drama with some wonderful characters and great set-pieces, The Brothers Bloom won't be for everyone, of course, but it's a beautiful, intelligent and cine-literate piece of work that I'm surprised isn't given more praise.
Brody and Ruffalo work very well together and are very believable as brothers, Rinko Kikuchi gets to play one of the coolest characters I can think of in the past decade and Rachel Weisz has one of the best roles of her career. Her character starts off as someone who may just be annoyingly quirky, but soon becomes someone with an infectious joy that viewers won't want to see come to any harm, physically or emotionally. There are fantastic little supporting turns from the likes of Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell, Andy Nyman, Nora Zehetner (onscreen for one brief scene only) and Ricky Jay (narrating). And eagle-eyed fans of Joseph Gordon-Levitt can spot him in the background of a party scene during the first 10-15 minutes. He has no actual dialogue or role, he's just there, hanging out and being cool.
People judging a con movie by how effectively they were conned may rate this one lower than I did because, ultimately, it's not that surprising for most of its runtime. Clues are littered throughout the script and design of each scene. However, they may be missing one important factor. The con works. Viewers will find themselves, as I did, watching for the twists and turns and enjoying each revelation and when the end credits roll they'll realise that, actually, they just enjoyed a great story. Which is what Johnson intended and what left me with such a warm glow inside and an urge to buy the film as soon as possible. Everyone gets what they want.