The Brothers Bloom: Rian Johnson

28May09

by The Great White Gypsy

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Whether you don’t watch movies very often, or you’re a cinema fanatic, we all have a soft spot for con game films. We are always willing to see one, we are much more forgiving of them, and Rian Johnson knows this. So he watched The Sting, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He watched The Last Waltz, and read Ulysses. And he crafted an amazing, entertaining, completely character-driven con film in The Brothers Bloom.
Immediately warm and witty, with great cinematography and a folky ‘70’s soundtrack, The Brothers Bloom is the story of two brothers, orphaned at a young age, who get kicked around foster homes and start running cons when they are about 10. Even then, they are wearing black and white suits with bowlers, and talking in grifter-speak. As they grow up, Stephen’s (Mark Ruffalo) cons become more elaborate and successful. He believes every con is a story to be told, a part to be played. He thinks that the best cons are successful when everyone involved gets exactly what they want. Bloom (Adrien Brody) is growing tired of the game, and wants out. Stephen convinces him to do “one last con” (yes, we’ve seen that a million times). With the help of Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) the explosives expert, they embark on their biggest con yet, and Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is the mark.
Several scenes reminded me of The Sting, as well as The Grifters. There is even a scene when the brothers are very young that actually reminded me of the intro to Reservoir Dogs. Stephen, Bloom, and Penelope are all characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. It is very interesting, knowing that, to see how in a setting like a con game, the characters are very, if not completely similar to the novel.
Rian Johnson’s first film was Brick, an old school noir adaptation set in a modern high school. It’s probably one of the best films you’ve never heard of. It was a feat of writing that mixed 1930’s dialog with a high school in 2006. The Brothers Bloom has similar juxtapositions. The brothers always wear pinstripe suits, bowlers, fedoras, and vests, looking slightly out of place in modern society. During almost every conversation, one of the characters is shuffling or dealing a deck of cards. The character Bang Bang is silent throughout the film, giving it a Harpo Marx meets Paul Newman feel.
The dialog is brilliant. Though every time Bloom is talking to Penelope, it is a load of crap, his overdramatic and melancholy storytelling hints at real emotions behind the curtain, and a fatigue with being someone he’s not.
Camerawork is nothing if not innovative. Steve Yeldin (Brick, American Violet) does a respectable job. There are several continuous shots from the back seat of a car as Brody flies over the hood, or the car spins out of control. The outside scenery is spinning and chaotic, but the close-ups on character expressions put you in the car with them as time slows down. It may be a little artsy for some, but it’s tongue-in-cheek with the rest of the film, and it fits nicely.
Keeping it all in the family, Johnson got his cousin, Nathan Johnson to compose the original score, which he also did for Brick, and it works beautifully.
What most people are looking for in a con films are the plot twists and who ends up with the prize. What Johnson attempted to do with The Brothers Bloom was create a completely character-driven con film, where the payoff might not be monetary, not completely at least, but what happens to the characters. Personally, I think he pulled it off.
One final note: if you’ve seen Brick, keep an eye out in the beginning for some interesting, uncredited cameos by the cast.
Final Grade: A-

Q&A
On opening weekend for The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson decided to do a one-man road show, and appear at screenings around the country to introduce the film and do a question and answer session afterwards. When I heard he was in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance. Moderated by Peter Sciretta of /Film.com, it was a surprise to most of the audience, and Johnson was candid and gracious. He spoke about his writing process (Bang Bang was his favorite character to write, and Rinko Kikuchi added a great comic element to the silence), how the film release was put on hold waiting for Oscar season to pass, and how he spent 65% of his budget on a set (the film was shot on location in Prague and several other areas of Europe). He actually released an MP3 file online that is basically his personal director’s commentary for the film, which you can download and listen to on your ipod in the theater (just don’t bother all the sensitive people with your light you inconsiderate basterds!). He was understandably vague, but says his next project will be a Science Fiction film involving time travel. The way he’s going after only two films, he just might give Danny Boyle a run for his money. Thanks to Rian Johnson for showing up, the guys at /Film, and my boy Jermain for chiming in with an intelligent question amidst douchebag comments.



One Response to “The Brothers Bloom: Rian Johnson”

  1. 1 Esther

    I found the film entertaining and was enjoyable.


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