Terrence Malick is a genius. The older I get, the more I appreciate that. His films are often hypnotic, glacial studies of the innate savagery and beauty of the natural world and Man’s place within it. But, more pertinently, he managed to almost completely excise charisma-vacuum Adrien Brody from The Thin Red Line, his masterful, epic meditation on war, based on James Jones hefty WW2 tome in which Brody’s character was pretty integral, what with him being one of the main characters and all. Unfortunately not everyone is as discerning as Malick.
With his hangdog face, slope-shouldered, shambling gait, and whiny, nasal delivery, Brody inexplicably appeals to the new breed of indie directors like Wes Anderson who invariably cast him in the same sort of roles as fellow nasal whiners Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and barely-sentient constipation-face Zach Braff. He’s also done sterling work as a bi-sexual punk go-go dancer/rentboy (talk about your specialist market) in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, a monkey-botherer in Peter Jackson’s rape of King Kong and won an Oscar for being better at hide and seek than Anne Frank (The Pianist). Some directors, perversely, even insist on building entire films around Brody, allowing the worst actor ever to win an Oscar™ to continue to find gainful employment and indulge his gay goat rape phobia (Seriously, I’m not making that up. Google Adrien Brody Gay Goat Rape if you don’t believe me). The Brothers Bloom is a case in point.
It’s an accepted fact of rock ‘n’ roll folklore that 2nd albums are always ‘difficult’. A bit of a mess. A bit flabby. Not as fresh, not as original, not as lean, not as tight.
Well, for director Rian Johnson The Brothers Bloom is that ‘difficult’ 2nd movie. Debuting in 2005 with the dazzling neo-noir Brick, it was practically inevitable that Johnson’s next film was going to be a disappointment. Made for under $500,000, Brick was slicker than baby-snot; a smart, unique thriller that transposed the hardboiled detective heroes and femme fatales of Dashiell Hammett to the John Hughes-world of suburban American high school. So, in the long cinematic tradition of throwing money at the latest wunderkind, allowing him to make a messy vanity project no-one wants to see (Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio, everything M. Night Shyamalan’s done since The Sixth Sense, Vincent Gallo. Screw his films, I actually mean Vincent Gallo), someone thought it’d be a good idea to give Johnson $20 million to make his 2nd film. A knockabout caper about two lovable conmen. Starring Adrien Brody.
The titular Bloom Brothers are orphaned scallywags who grow up to be gentlemen thieves and conmen. Stephen (human/bear hybrid Mark Ruffalo) is the brains of the operation who apparently constructs cons “like Russians write novels” (though the cons we see owe more to Scooby Doo and seem to involve robbing gullible women) while Brody’s Bloom (which would make his name Bloom Bloom. How sickeningly cute is that?) is the tortured, soulful accomplice who charms women out of their fortunes. In the tradition of caper movies, Stephen has planned one last big score; all they have to do is screw wacky orphaned heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz) out of some dosh without lovelorn Bloom falling in love with her. Can the Brothers Bloom, aided by sexy mute Japanese explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), get the money and the girl?
Like being repeatedly smooshed in the kisser for 2 hours with a raspberry pavlova wielded by a curly-haired, gap-toothed moppet, The Brothers Bloom is messy, sickeningly, tooth-rottingly sweet and annoyingly cute. It’s wacky. It’s kooky. It’s zany. This film wants your love, demands your love, needs your love, has to have your love. But, like someone else’s redheaded stepchild performing magic tricks at a party, you just can’t bring yourself to love it. Which doesn’t mean The Brothers Bloom is a terrible film. It’s not. It isn’t even a bad film. It’s not a disaster of Southland Tales-proportions. It’s not as obnoxious as Hudson Hawk. It won’t make you want to stab yourself in the eyes with a sewage-smeared grapefruit spoon the way Battlefield Earth or The Hottie and the Nottie will. It just isn’t as cute or funny or smart or lovable as it thinks it is.
For a start; it’s a caper film about two conmen. With the notable exceptions of The Sting and Nine Queens, films about conmen never really engage. Conmen just aren’t that attractive. Characters who prey on the weakest members of society tend not to invite audience sympathy. That’s why in the movies, conmen tend to be portrayed as Robin Hood-type figures, dispensing justice by robbing rich, odious gangsters (The Sting, Confidence, etc). You just don’t see many films about bogus gas engineers robbing pensioners.
You have to like the protagonists. The Brothers Bloom just aren’t that likeable. Their big score consists of seducing and then ripping off a lonely, mentally fragile woman with epilepsy. So what if she’s played by Rachel Weisz in full-on kook mode? On paper it’s still pretty despicable. To make matters worse she ends up falling for Adrien Brody who as a romantic lead makes a very good sad giraffe with floppy hair. While Mark Ruffalo is a fine actor, he’s more suited to playing lunkheads and violent, sexually aggressive bullies than he is genius conmen, though his casting did add an extra layer of tension for me, as, at any moment, I expected him to dry hump one of the other main characters (Brody included).
Despite being played by Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi, the women aren’t characters; they’re adolescent geek wank fantasies. Weisz’s Penelope is lonely, rich, beautiful, collects hobbies (cue overlong montage where Weisz raps, skateboards, juggles chainsaws, plays the banjo, etc) and gets the horn during thunderstorms. Kikuchi’s Bang Bang is silent, sexy, drinks Campari and enjoys blowing things up. What self-respecting geek wouldn’t adore either of these women? Only the two actresses gifts as light comediennes raises their characters above the level of cipher. The focus of The Brothers Bloom may be their attempts to get their hands on Penelope’s cash but they’re blind to the heist going on under their noses as Kikuchi steals the film.
The biggest problem with The Brothers Bloom is it’s just too smug and knowing to satisfy. A studied exercise in cuteness, it tries to pack too many ideas in and while there’s a lot here to enjoy (the film is worth seeing just for the one-legged rollerskating kitten) the film still manages to run out of steam about half an hour from the end. From its cheery, nostalgic opening narrated by Mamet-stalwart Ricky Jay (note to all directors - NEVER cast Ricky Jay in a film about conmen unless you want your film to be compared unfavourably to Mamet) to its rat-tat-tat dialogue to the succession of crosses, double-crosses and flashbacks which climax the film, The Brothers Bloom feels like it’s trying too hard. Flitting breathlessly from continent to continent, getting into madcap adventures, wearing cool clothes and causing more noise than a brass band being kicked down a flight of stairs, The Brothers Bloom leaves you feeling a little hollow. Ultimately, for all its ideas, for all its cutesy hipness, quirkiness is just no substitute for a plot and characters you care about. Hopefully Johnson will remember that before he starts shooting his new film, Looper. And fingers crossed Adrien Brody doesn’t completely ruin Predators.
(A version of this piece appeared on filmjuice.com)