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.