There are so, so many things to enjoy about The Brothers Bloom, from Rian Johnson's witty and energetic direction to the tender fraternal relationship between the main characters, Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo). And Johnson and his actors seem to believe so firmly in the story they're telling, in the struggle of a con man to find a life that isn't scripted step by step, that you may will yourself to be swept away by the con.
But in tweaking the genre of the con man movie, Johnson throws away too many of its pleasures, namely the art of keeping the audience on a string and doling out information to them in careful doses. He did this masterfully in Brick, his 2006 high school noir that did twists and turns as well as Chandler or Hammett ever did. In Bloom, the con isn't really the point-- Johnson is using the wacky schemes to examine a lifetime's worth of fraternal conflict and love-- but the pieces of the game need to be in place anyway, for the audience's sake. There's no reward in guessing the crosses and double-crosses here, and no sense that you're either ahead of the character, or they're playing you. Instead following the scheme Bloom and Stephen have concocted feels like a chore, waiting impatiently for the next move to get out of the way so the real character stuff can get going.
Happily, the characters are well worth following, and the dynamite performances from all four leads give the movie what the script lacks. Hangdog Brody is Bloom, who's spent years apart from his more scheming brother before this one last con, which involves Rachel Weisz's flighty, possibly dangerous New Jersey heiress and, as always, a stack of money. Ruffalo's Stephen is the more energetic and happy-go-lucky of the pair, casting his brother at the center of the con so that he and his mute sidekick Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, an excellent mime) can pull the strings from behind the curtain.
Bouncing about the globe, from Prague to the Mediterranean to Mexico, the brothers Bloom, heiress Penelope and Bang Bang executive their complex con in one sun-drenched location after another, eventually wrangling the Bloom's Fagin-esque mentor (Maximillian Schell) and another old friend (Robbie Coltrane). Going into the plot would be beside the point, and plus, I'm not entirely sure I understand it myself; suffice it to say that Penelope and Bloom start falling in love for real, though neither of them is sure where the con ends and real love begins. And it all ends with more beautiful locations, more fake treasures, and more fake blood--and perhaps a little of the real stuff.
With its lush locations and pitch-perfect eye for color, The Brothers Bloom is a wonder to look at, and often moves at a skilled lickety-split pace (the prologue, told entirely in rhyme, is especially great). But the movie drags every time Bloom whines about how much he hates the con, or he and his brother talk in plainly obvious terms about "the written life" vs. "the unwritten life," which unnecessarily spells out the movie's themes and goals. The unbridled energy and enthusiasm that Johnson and his cast are putting in would be better served by a story less rote, a con plot that at least pretends to be something new.
I wouldn't mind seeing The Brothers Bloom a second time, given how packed each frame is with detail and how likely it is that I'd get something fresh from it. But I still don't think the story would be rewarding, or the central con itself feeling any less by-the-numbers. Johnson remains a formidable talent and Bloom is surely more imaginative than much of anything else that's come out this year. If only the plot at its center had shared that inspiration.