Monday, June 15, 2009

Oh, Brother!

by Chuck Williamson

Resembling a candy-coated fever-dream, The Brothers Bloom is a muddled, lysergic mess punctuated by bursts of bright, day-glo colors and surges of mad, manic energy—of which none, unfortunately, conceal the film’s fatal flaws. But what do you expect from a work of patchwork plagiarism? Riann Johnson’s sophomore effort—a stitched-together mixture of con-man comedy and twee sentimentality—shamelessly pilfers through Wes Anderson’s creative waste-baskets, copy-pasting the director’s deadpan dialogue, children’s book preciousness, picaresque narrative, and familial conflict without developing its own internal rhythms or logic.

But you’ve heard this before, right? Since the film’s release, critics have derisively written The Brothers Bloom off as an Anderson knock-off, a pretender to the throne, a soulless imitator. And, to an extent, such reductive assessments seem fitting for a film that, for all its fussy pyrotechnics, seems perversely comfortable with its status as a second-hand twee-fest. Nonetheless, the film’s failures extend far beyond these inevitable conclusions; in fact, the facile Anderson comparisons do little to adequately explain the film’s more maddening and frustrating flaws. Coasting on borrowed whimsy and manufactured quirk, The Brothers Bloom is both overstuffed and underwritten, failing as both genre pastiche and compelling narrative, forcing us down an endless rabbit hole that goes nowhere.

Introducing its protagonists in an insufferably mannered prologue narrated in rhyming couplets (by Ricky Jay, no less!), the film follows Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), a pair of vintage-quality con artists who specialize in spinning elaborately designed adventure narratives that double as convoluted con jobs. Together, with mute explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the brothers embark on the mutually beneficial enterprise of granting their marks the sort of two-fisted, globetrotting adventure they crave while also lining their pockets with the money of swindled millionaires. But when Bloom—the “tragic anti-hero” of his brother’s ornate narratives—decides he wants to quit, Stephen baits him into one last con targeting Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric and lonesome New Jersey heiress. What initially seems like a simple con job transforms into a romantic, transcontinental adventure when the inevitable sparks fly between Bloom and Penelope, who turns out to be far more unpredictable and resourceful than originally imagined.

Overloaded with subplots, centrifuge, con games, and counter-cons, the film ultimately short-circuits from its crowded, crippling narrative. While The Brothers Bloom works best at times as a showcase for cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s stunning photography—a subtle combination of crisp, deep-focus naturalism and pop-art excess—the film often trades narrative coherence for visual inventiveness, occasionally being reduced into a series of visually-ornate tableaus that intrude on the narrative rather than enhance it. In fact, the film’s opaque, sleight-of-hand story often gets lost in the jumble of quirks, gags, and visual tics. Ironically, many of the film’s visual gags and set pieces work brilliantly when isolated from the white noise of narrative: an inspired, spritely montage of Penelope’s acquired hobbies; a bungled “epiphany” that lands Bloom in jail; a slow-motion car crash that defies physics and gravity. But the film never succeeds in bringing any of these elements together, as the imaginative clutter that takes up its two-thirds never coheres in a way that adequately satisfies. At times, Johnson seems less committed to the bricks and mortar of his picture, instead misplacing all of his efforts into its empty, ornamental elements.

All of the performers do their best with the material, but they too are ultimately reduced into one-note archetypes without the poignancy or depth to really sell the third-act emotional payoff. Like every other element in the film, the characters feel synthetic and manufactured, mechanized quirk-bots programmed to be winsome and cute. Brody and Weisz both turn in the film’s best performances, but the film’s predilection for magic tricks over nuts-and-bolts filmmaking turns their romance into a tangled love story between a mopey department store mannequin and a manic pixie dream girl. Of course, the film’s inability to logically develop their romance nullifies its culminative effect; their courtship progresses illogically and inconsistently, going from bed-romping to mope-baiting to con-jobbing and back again. Despite their solid efforts, the actors get lost in the background, sucked away into the histrionics, and turned into broad, lifeless figures.

If helmed more competently, the film’s form could have complimented its content, enriching the film’s investigations of fiction and reality, turning what exists only as shallow lip-service into something more substantive and interesting. But this is not that film; the fussy script and baroque visual design compete for our attention, never fusing together. As it stands, the film can be enjoyed only as clumsily designed collection of cinematic magic tricks.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

You pretty much nail everything that is wrong with this film. I saw it over the weekend and found it as flawed as you did. I pretty much spent the whole film spotting the influences...of course I do the same thing in a Wes Anderson film but Anderson knows how to make them into something unique and his own.
I'm glad you mentioned the cinematography though as this is at least an extremely colorful and beautiful film to look at. I'm also a confirmed Rachel Weisz obsessive and was really charmed by her performance...I just wish it could have been in a different film!
This really was a consignment shop hodgepodge of Anderson (P.T. as well, David O. Russell and dozen other better filmmakers)...hell, even the score was attempting to ape Jon Brion, and not very well.

Jason Bellamy said...

Strong review. I liked it a little more than you did, but your arguments are strong. My main problem was this:

"Overloaded with subplots, centrifuge, con games, and counter-cons, the film ultimately short-circuits from its crowded, crippling narrative."

As for the Wes Anderson thing: I actually think the comparison is an insult to Anderson, not to Johnson. Sure, Johnson seems to be aping some of Anderson's aesthetic, but that's where the comparisons end, really. I never once thought of Anderson during the movie, because beyond the costuming and quirkiness of the characters, I don't see any major similarities.

Given that Anderson supporters get pissed when people reduce his films to his trademark style (arguing in response that his films are deeper than that), it's interesting how many Anderson fans seem to feel that a similar visual aesthetic means it's an attempt to copy Anderson. (Not that you're making that suggestion.)

Chuck W said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

Jeremy - Good call on the wealth of influences, and I definitely agree that Anderson himself tends to borrow from other filmmakers, albeit more effectively (sometimes--still not too hot on his last two features). While I still think the Anderson comparison is the most thuddingly obvious and semi-shameless, I can definitely see shades of a few other filmmakers--hell, that seven-minute prologue bears a strong resemblance the openers to both The Royal Tenenbaums AND Magnolia (right down to the droll Ricky Jay line readings).

Weisz is definitely a delight in the film, as is Brody who I always find myself rooting for despite some of his more questionable post-Oscar performances (maybe it's because we both have big noses).

Jeremy - Definitely agree with you about the schizophrenia of Anderson supporters--but, to be honest, I found the film's borrowing of this aesthetic more than skin-deep. I would argue that it's both visual and narrative, permeating throughout the scripting, cinematography, editing, set design, costuming, and performances in equal measure.

But even as I say this, I should also mention that some of the film's strongest moments come when the Anderson influence is at its strongest. The extended montage of Weisz showing off her acquired talents is a dead-ringer for a similar sequence in Rushmore--but I would still isolate that scene as one of the film's funniest moments. Again, I personally think the film fails for many, many reasons; the Anderson stuff is just the one thing many critics have latched on to.

Chuck W said...

D'oh! The second "Jeremy" should be "Jason."

Those J-names always trip me up!

Neil Fulwood said...

Rhyming couplets?

An explosives expert called Bang Bang?

Oh Christ.

And I was so looking forward to this after 'Brick' ...

Chuck W said...

That's only the tip of the iceberg, Neil. It gets faaaaaar worse.