In his 2005 debut, Brick, Rian Johnson boldly crossed the policier with the high school film, placing exaggeratedly hardboiled dialogue in the mouths of his California teens and involving them in a detective narrative derived from any number of ‘40s crime pictures. Whatever the film’s shortcomings, it wasn’t a lack of commitment to either of its sources; even as the filmmaker clearly relished playing up the noir trappings of the project, he did more than pay lip service to his high school setting, creating a fully imagined world of cliques and subcultures against which to set his action. In his follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, Johnson attempts a similar generic mash-up with notably less success. Combining the comic caper film with a calculatedly offbeat, Wes Anderson-inflected brand of drollery, the movie gets both modes wrong, missing the heady thrills expected of the former while failing to establish a sufficiently distinctive comedic sensibility of its own.
If the Anderson comparison seems a little facile, then the only thing to say is that Johnson deliberately courts it and that the results are less than flattering to the younger filmmaker. From the breakneck prologue which—in its flashback to a precocious childhood, its wistful narration, and its bravura editing—plays like a turbocharged version of The Royal Tenenbaums‘s opener, to the film’s punchy, hyperreal color scheme, its narrative of sibling resentment, even its casting of Adrian Brody, Bloom seems designed to ape the Anderson sensibility, banking on a borrowed auteurist signature to cover up the lack of inspiration in its own conception. And with a sole exception (an amusing montage of one character’s increasingly outrageous hobbies which explicitly recalls Max Fischer’s list of extra-curricular activities in Rushmore), Johnson proves a poor study, importing the quirkiness, but missing the imaginative zest of his more successful model.
As a comic caper, the film at least starts out with considerable promise, following the titular brothers, world-renowned con men Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody, his character oddly identified only by his last name), as they enact the last of their intricately plotted scams. Scripted in meticulous detail by Stephen (who, according to Bloom, “writes cons the way Russians write novels”) and played to perfection by both brothers, the pair’s extra-legal bits of theater have the scope and breadth of little works of art. But when Bloom decides he wants out (in the film’s strained meta-conceit, he feels he’s been “written” since childhood by his brother and now wants an “unwritten life”), Stephen convinces him to go on one last run. Targeting a bored heiress, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), the brothers whisk her off around the world, involving her in the smuggling of a valuable book, while keeping her in the dark about their ultimate aims. But things take an unexpected—or from the audience’s point of view, very expected—turn when Bloom falls in love with the woman and divulges their plan to her.
In the earlier parts of the film, Johnson seems to relish the details of the brothers’ byzantine plotting, showing us a teenage prank in which the young pair duped an entire town into dirtying their clothes after striking a deal with a dry cleaner or spelling out the elaborate measures they took to insure a mark would pull the trigger of a fake gun. But by the time they set off on their grand adventure, the filmmaker seems to either have lost interest in the details of the scam or run out of ideas. Instead, he gives us a long, drawn-out narrative that hops from country to country, but plays coy with the specifics of the con game being enacted, so that even when Penelope finally reveals her own aptitude for calculated deceit, Johnson allows us to see the upshot of her actions, but he never gives us any clue as to how she achieved her results.
A caper film that doesn’t generate much excitement around its capers and a comedy that would be much funnier if it paid more attention to detail or established a more personal perspective, Brothers Bloom serves as a cautionary example of the difficulty of successfully mixing modes, particularly those for which the filmmaker seems to have little affinity.