Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Brothers Bloom - IFFBoston 2009 Opening Night

Dir. Rian Johnson

Viewed: From the Balcony

It feels like it has been pouring rain off and on in the Boston area for days now. Last night, as the line of faithful film fans snaked around the block awaiting the call from the IFFBoston staff, it was downright punishing at times. But as it turns out, it was well worth the soggy feet and the hour plus wait as the opening night feature, Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, was like a pure uncut dose of cinema.

The first seven minutes of the film, which I believe you can watch online somewhere or another, introduces us to Bloom and Stephen (the titular brothers played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, respectively) as nomadic grifter pre-teens shaking down kids at the park. Narration during this part is provided by Ricky Jay, giving the film some immediate street cred and cementing the film's foundation as a con-artist fable. The Brothers Bloom is a colorful and even whimsical film, but that eye-popping production design and fanciful tone are as much a part of the story as Bloom's constipated soul and Stephen's god complex.

The con-artist is a character perfectly suited for film. Setting up the long-con -- roping in your mark, selling them on the scheme, keeping them on board until the final pay-off -- is part and parcel with the work filmmakers perform to create a world for the viewer to get lost in. In The Brothers Bloom, Stephen is essentially the director of Bloom's world, filling it with colorful characters, exotic locations and a manic pixie dream girl that will fall for him at the end of each job. But such an existence has worn Bloom down, and when we first see him as an adult, he's already grown weary and unable to celebrate their latest successful swindle. Bloom yearns for an unscripted life.

Stephen takes Bloom's ennui as a challenge to create the perfect con, one where everyone involved gets what they want. He sets up a long-con wherein Bloom will end up with his unscripted life and the mark (a rich, lonely, recluse played by the amazing Rachel Weisz) will get companionship and adventure. This focus on character sets the films apart and makes it much more a comedic The Grifters than another Confidence. There is some sort of con involving money and a book and smuggling antiques -- but the film is far more interested in the emotional stakes of Bloom and Penelope, everything else is busy work. It's fun busy work, but MacGuffin stuff nonetheless. The most fun comes from trying to figure out the theoretical mark, Penelope. Rachel Weisz prevents her from simply becoming a goofy flibbertigibbet and early on Bloom (and the audience) is left wondering if she is actually one of Stephen's creations or not. Stephen warns Bloom not to fall in love with her, but is it reverse psychology? It's hopeless anyway because this is Rachel Weisz we're talking about.

As well, you should resist all temptations not to fall in love with Rinko Kikuchi who plays Bang Bang, the secret weapon of The Brothers Bloom (both the movie and their team). She may be the oddest ball in a movie full of them. She barely speaks at all and her motivations remain a mystery besides the fact that we know she likes to blow things up, but she is a wonder to behold in the film and steals just about every moment she is on screen. And I'd like to briefly mention how nice it is to see Robbie Coltrane in a film that doesn't involve a boy wizard. He's not in the film for very long but he lovingly works his scenes for all they're worth.

Compared to Rian Johnson's first film Brick, The Brother's Bloom is a huge evolutionary step, cinematically speaking. If I remember correctly, most of Brick's unique stylization was in the dialog -- it's a story that could have made for an equally good novelization. The Brothers Bloom, on the other hand, uses every aspect of cinema to tell it's story in such a energetic way that I was completely swept up by it from the first frame. What really impressed me though was that the film was able to keep that energy alive for damn near all of its running time. It's rare that a film this alive is able to sustain that momentum. Amelie comes to mind, but I might suggest that this movie is even more entertaining than that one. Rian Johnson took questions after the film received a well deserved extended applause and spoke a bit about the challenge of keeping that momentum going -- especially in a film that has a couple of false endings. My only complaint is that there are a couple speed bumps in the back half of the film but by that time in the story it's only a minor hiccup. Oh, and there is one funny but disconcerting montage early on (when we get to witness the many talents of Penelope - chainsaw juggling!) that probably could have been treated in a less strictly-for-laughs manner. So it's not 100% perfect, but it's near the top of an already impressive year of films.

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