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Movie Review: Brothers Bloom

Brothers Bloom Poster

May 14, 2009 – There comes a point when you’ve innovated something as far as it can possibly go, added all that you could conceivably add, discovered all that there was to discover, so that nothing can ever again be new. For the most part, the con-man genre is like this, and if you draw a line back through cinematic history, you can trace the evolution of the double-cross in the most basic of terms. It began with a lie – one character deceiving another in such a way that the audience was in on the scam. And for awhile, the lie was enough. We were content to know exactly where the ball was at any point during the shell game. Whether the target would figure out the con was thrill enough for us. But then we got smarter, wiser, more demanding, and filmmakers delivered the triple-cross, or simply added another element to the con, shuffling around the shells at such a rate and speed that while the audience was aware of the deception, the conclusion was always surprising.

Then came the point at which the characters themselves were no longer sufficient victims. We’d gotten too good at spotting the bait-and-switch, the sleight-of-hand, and so the filmmakers were then forced to con us, the viewers. The story would seemingly end, the con would be revealed, and then, in a surprising twist on the twist, we would discover that somehow, in some way, we had been fooled, the final, unspoken players in the confidence game.

So con movies became clever while audiences became smarter and if we weren’t already a step ahead, we were hardly ever that far behind. Thankfully, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom injects some desperately needed vigor into this waning genre. The follow-up to Brick, Johnson’s ode to the “film noir” motif, Bloom is filled with first-rate scams, refreshing whimsy and incredibly well-layered performances, yet it aims to be something greater than simply another drop in the con-man bucket. It’s smarter than that, and the con being played upon the audience is that we’re watching a brilliant and thoughtful deconstruction of the genre without really knowing it.

The story of two brothers, Stephen and Bloom (played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, respectively), the film follows their efforts to pull “One Last Con” on a mega-wealthy shut-in, Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Having shut herself up for years in her sprawling estate, the richest woman on the Eastern Seaboard has become a virtual outcast, studying and learning every craft from every book available to her. Stephen, who writes his cons with all the grace and symbolism of classic literature, is clearly in love with his work, both storyteller and character all at once, while Bloom seeks to lead what Stephen refers to as “an unwritten life.”

And it’s this basic premise – the ability to lead a life un-scripted by family or fate – that makes The Brothers Bloom perhaps the most entertaining and dare we say important con movie of the last several years, delivering consistently on all levels. Of course, Penelope quickly transcends the title of victim to join in on a bigger con – and it’s to Johnson’s credit that we’re never quite certain if the brothers are still playing her, if Stephen is playing Bloom, if somebody else is playing all of them, or if they’re all actually being honest with one another.

Johnson takes a sizeable step forward as a director with this film, which feels almost 180-degrees away from the dark, brooding tone of Brick. This is a colorful movie, full of grand sequences and vibrant set pieces. It moves quickly and freely, embracing a never-too-quirky sense of style that makes the story feel more in the vein of a Wes Anderson film – most especially the opening prologue. The banter is quick and smart and poignant, and each actor rises effortlessly to their character.

It’s likely that audiences have yet to see the uber-dramatic Ruffalo in a role quite this light, and while Stephen certainly passes through his fair share of drama throughout the film, Ruffalo shows a side of himself that’s considerably less intense and vastly more accessible than his more gruff, tortured roles. His relationship with Brody, his brother, is wonderfully complex – full of love and loathing – and, in turn, Brody’s relationship with Weisz is breezily romantic. And yet, each of these pairings are obscured by the constant presense of “the con” and we’re never fully able to trust our footing in any given situation.

There is no excessively self-clever ending to Bloom – the film simply isn’t as concerned with executing the perfect con as it is with watching it fall apart – and somewhere in between the drama and comedy, the whimsy and the tragedy, the idea of the “unwritten life” is ever-present. The Brothers Bloom will undoubtedly have a place among the better, if not the best, films about con-men, but it’s also a film about family and trust and the limits of both. Do yourself a favor and give yourself over to the shell game because it doesn’t matter where the ball turns up, so much as that you played at all.

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