Rian Johnson is the Lucinda Williams of Hollywood. In his career, he’s directed precisely two feature-length films, “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom,” both imaginative and damn-near brilliant. The former, an indie gem about a high school loner determined to find his vanished ex-girlfriend, signaled the appearance of a fledgling talent. But the latter? Johnson’s second creation shows that talent in full, crazy-twisty inventive bloom. Worry not that he’s sold out, for a bigger budget and three top-list talents have done nothing to dampen that indie creativity.
Such innovation becomes evident early on in “The Brothers Bloom,” a kind of fairytale/Picaresque novel hybrid about two long-con operator brothers bilking a clueless mark out of her inheritance. The mastermind is Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), a showboater who loves the game as much as he loves the money it produces. He’s a showman, writing all kinds of symbolism (which no one’s smart enough to catch) into his cons. Pulled along for the ride is his weary younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody). Bloom wants out, mostly because he’s not a real person; he only plays the parts his brother writes for him. “He’s written me as the vulnerable antihero, and that’s why you think you want to kiss me,” he tells the leggy brunette he meets in a bar. Bloom’s an island, he knows it and he wants no more of his grifter lifestyle.
Until he meets Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The eccentric serial hobbyist gets drawn into the con to end all cons. And it’s a doozy, spanning continents and involving a creepy Beligian (Robbie Coltrane), an alluring explosives expert (Rinko Kikuchi), an eighth-century manuscript and a mysterious Russian fellow named Diamond Dog (Maximillian Schell), dastardly despite his lack of depth perception.
Rest assured there’s much more to the story than this, but it’s important to go into “The Brothers Bloom” with little information. The storyline’s something of an elaborate hamster playground, a maze with overlapping subplots that run smack into other subplots; some of these lead back to the beginning, while others point toward the numerous conclusions. Yet the strategy isn’t entirely successful. Fool moviegoers once, maybe twice, and they’ll likely stick with the gimmick. (It does, after all, reward intelligence.) Do it too many times and it becomes downright annoying. Thus, for awhile, all this conning and reconning and unconning seems enough to drown out all my chatter about Johnson’s ingenuity.
But wait. There are saving graces in “Brothers Bloom,” and they come in the form of inside jokes, cinematography and acting. Johnson peppers all sorts of puns and tricks in that add a sense of mischief, from obscure literary references to split-second sight gags. Then there’s Steve Yeldin’s cinematography. His work is fairly impressive, with his lensing capturing the landscapes (Montenegro, Prague) in a way that gives the film a timeless, expansive feel that seems a fitting backdrop for the essence of Johnson’s characters.
And, oh, the characters. Ruffalo’s an actor with a gift for understatement who trafficks in little expressions, so it’s nice to see him take on a character who thrives on melodrama. He deserves more than a little credit for making Stephen, a control freak with a serious God complex, someone worth liking. Weisz, underappreciated as a comic actress, finds spunk and optimism in Penelope, who grew up a shut in and now views the world with more interest than fear. Her energy seems overwhelming at times, sure, but there’s a childlike wonder that charms more than it irritates. And anyone who follows Brody knows his characters are all about externalizing the internal using just the eyes. He’s perfected the sadsack look — vulnerable antihero suits him better than self-deprecating wiseass suits John Cusack — but lets his eyes suggest more than plain old misery. Watching Bloom warm to Penelope, who’s every bit as stuck and lost as he is, is more honest than it ought to be in about professional liars.
Then again, “The Brothers Bloom” isn’t exactly a color-inside-the-lines con movie. There’s more heart than brain but less brain than ambition. Maybe Johnson shoots a little too high, maybe he tries a little to hard to be clever. But I can’t shake the feeling this guy’s got a masterpiece in him somewhere, and I can’t wait to see it. Talent like this is rare and refreshing.