I have seen 75% of the ouvre of Rian Johnson; he has made four movies. Eventually I'll get around to seeing The Last Jedi to complete the set, but for now, I feel I have gotten a good sense of the tight and purposeful vision he brings to filmed stories. I've read that he was inspired by Paper Moon and The Sting, but his work also reminds me of The Muppet Movie in it's absolute commitment to being what it is; in the case of The Brothers Bloom, that would be gleefully clever, secretly earnest, and honestly melancholy.
The Brothers Bloom entrances me because it is heightened and stylized, but never so in love with its own style that it forgets to tell the story. The format (an opening sequence in verse - narrated by Ricky Jay! title cards! cheeky flashbacks to Jakarta!) is exaggerated, which is appropriate for something that unfolds like a fable. Rather than a dark wood or enchanted castle, though, we have the loveable rogue Stephen (Mark Ruffalo, just begging to be hugged, and you won't even mind if he palms your wallet in the embrace) and his brother Bloom (Adrian Brody, who actually needs a hug and will only take half the contents of your wallet) gadding about in Europe and New Jersey in dapper fedoras. Though, come to think of it, Penelope (Rachel Weisz, adorable and desirable and able to deliver a monologue about petrified poop in the soul) lives in a castle and they even accidentally destroy the tower of another. And dark woods come into the story in St. Petersburg at the final con. So I am corrected - it does have classic fable settings AND great hats.
When we meet the adult brothers, we see them celebrate the close of a con while Bloom broods, playing solitaire, and telling an ingenue that she only has a crush on the character he was playing in the con; his brother builds a con “like dead Russians write novels - with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit.” This is sort of a hint, by the way; the script’s thematic arc is about the lies we’ve been told and want to believe, and the symbolism of blood is pretty clear. The end is both hopeful and heartbreaking; the world is both simplistically bright and constructed, but also layered and weighted with real consequence. It’s Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo but with better dialogue.
And, oh, the dialogue!
“I hate to simplistically vilify an entire country, but Mexico is a terrible place.”
“You know what a goddamn banana seat is.”
“That’s my new favorite camel!”
“I didn’t expect him to actually be Belgian.” “I’m not sure he is.”
”’Wow’s the word you’re looking for, WOW!”
”I don’t plan.” “Good for you.”
One of my favorite parts, ironically, is the character of Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, in fabulous lipstick), who only speaks about four words and somehow knows just when to appear and disappear (and when to chuck an apple over the side of a boat). Robbie Coltrane plays The Belgian, who eats waffles and may or may not actually be from Belgium. There’s Diamond Dog, who is creepily avuncular and menacing with enough ambiguity that you’re not sure how sinister he was, or could be. I know that some of these people are underdeveloped, and that Penelope’s character is uneven and can be too cute (“wassup?”); the pacing and tone aren’t always perfect; I know this. But so what? It’s a movie that rewards repeated viewing without making you work too hard; it’s layered but also glossy; it’s about identity and truth while also hiding its heart with the aces up its sleeves.
Stephen’s philosophy is that the perfect con is one where everyone involved gets exactly what they wanted. Whenever I watch this long con of a movie, I feel it’s succeeded in putting one over on me in the very best way possible.