Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008) Review

One-trick ponies... Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as The Brothers Bloom...

I'll lay it out straight: expectations were high. After the critically acclaimed Sundance hit Brick (2005), which proclaimed up-and-comer Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one of the most dynamic screen actors of his generation, Rian Johnson had a lot to live up to with his second feature, the kookily titled Brothers Bloom. The plot is as daffy as Warner Bros. iconic duck, but then Brick's was an idea which should have fallen flat on its face, instead emerging as an intelligent, bruising high school noir. After a limited US run last year, Johnson's follow-up now arrives on our shores. Were expectations met? Well, yes and no...

So, let's first establish that daffy plot. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are brothers in crime, once con-boys and now con-men. After a stylish prologue Stephen is established as the leader of the pack - he plans the heists and builds the characters before setting off Bloom on a 15-part escapade which he's now growing weary of. Also followed by the zany Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), Bloom agrees to one last job before retiring to an "unwritten life". The 'job' is eccentric millionaire Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and from there I'll leave things open.

Naturally for a sophomore feature Johnson has widened his gaze, relishing the option of a budget to zip his audience across the globe (Greece, Tokyo, Mexico...) and absorb them into a world which often looks like it was hand-painted by Wes Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard on a weekend picnicking trip. The colour scheme has brightened, abandoning the west coast pastels of Brick for a more comic book-y aesthetic, matched by the film's amped-up quirk factor (Stephen and Bloom live in a Zoo). And yet, something is lost in the expansion. Brick's genius was its simplicity (teenage gumshoe unravels a murder plot), but Bloom is far too big for its boots, and knows it. Even our introduction to Penelope is an exercise in tested patience - trapped for a lifetime in her dream home, this lonely spinster "collects hobbies", and in a goofy montage shows Bloom her skills at skateboarding, juggling chainsaws and playing the harp. Seriously, it's almost skin-crawlingly cute.

Of course, the Brick / Bloom comparison is a little unfair, as they're completely different films. But when a filmmaker has been as good as Johnson has been, there's really no excuse for him being this average. The picture hurries through about twelve plot twists a quarter, but each has a depressing flash of brilliance masked by the madness. Despite the manic pixie qualities of her character, one is undoubtedly Weisz, who has always been a pleasant screen actress, but not always a convincing one (the coffins acted her offscreen in The Mummy Returns, 2001). Here she pulls out all the stops to play this giggling ball of useless expertise, desperate to find a real adventure and a real love. There's a totally endearing innocence to Penelope which acts as a glue to the disjointed narrative, and her journey is one I was compelled to follow.

There are also moments of real directorial flair, such as a jaw-dropping car crash towards the film's end. Sweeping pans and close-ups are employed brilliantly here, building to an awesome stunt where the car flips upside down in slow motion - the camera placing us inside the car, watching the characters reactions. The finale also oozes style, set in a derelict theater with noirish light filtering through the curtains. Zooms and quick-cut editing make this a thrilling sequence, but it's too little too late for a film which ultimately registered as tedious. It's a film of bits - bits I loved and bits I hated. It hasn't been worth the wait, but there are fragments of warmth and humor which remain unique among their contemporaries. I love Rian Johnson and I await Looper eagerly, but this one was just... well, a bit of a one-trick pony.

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