Rian Johnson’s first feature, the high-school film noir “Brick,” earned one rave after another in 2005, which everyone in show business knows is a mixed blessing. A great first film means impossible expectations for your second film. So I think Johnson made the right choice with “The Brothers Bloom,” a daffy, jolly tale that’s completely different from “Brick” in style and tone, and thus cannot be compared to it. If you’re worried about people judging all your apples by the first one you gave them, give ’em an orange next time.
The main characters are brothers, and Bloom is evidently their last name. One is called Stephen; the other is simply Bloom, as if his orphan status denied him the luxury of a first name. As children, they are bounced from one foster home to another as each set of parents gets fed up with their constant con jobs and swindling operations. In a delightful opening sequence set during their childhood, told in iambic rhyme and narrated by grift-movie fixture Ricky Jay, we learn that Stephen is the mastermind while Bloom is the hopeless romantic who always gets too attached to the girl.
Twenty-five years later, the boys are still pulling con jobs, but Bloom (now played by Adrien Brody) wants out. He wants to settle into a normal life, meet a nice girl, make an honest living. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) comes up with a new shenanigan to serve as Bloom’s swan-song. The mark? An eccentric heiress named Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) who lives in a huge mansion in New Jersey and can probably be bilked out of a million bucks or so. The boys break into their usual routine (an “accidental” meeting, etc.), and the game is afoot!
Accompanied by Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), their mostly silent Japanese partner and technical adviser, the brothers and Penelope board a steamer headed for Europe. The boys are posing as antiques experts and smugglers this time around, with the retrieval of a precious artifact the guise under which they’ll hit Penelope up for “investment” money. The unforeseen but inevitable complication, of course, is that Bloom begins to fall in love with Penelope.
The movie works reasonably well as a straightforward switcheroo caper, though I’m not sure all the mechanics of the brothers’ big con jobs actually make sense. The more vital components, though, are the characters, and Johnson’s impish sense of humor. He’s fond of putting odd sight gags in the background, some of which are quirky for quirkiness’ sake but most of which are just funny. A montage of Penelope’s eclectic hobbies — juggling, playing various instruments, DJing at a dance club — is a jolting burst of hilarity.
I see the influence of Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” especially) in the film’s offbeat tone and disconnected characters. Penelope never leaves her mansion, where she lives alone, yet she’s eager to make friends and have adventures. (Weisz’s performance is utterly charming, completely believable as a character that a man could fall in love with upon first sight.) Bloom and Stephen have globe-trotted their whole lives as scampish misfits who have each other and nothing else. There is real brotherly love between them, and that’s what makes the film’s final act so sweet, albeit in a weird, vaguely sardonic way.
Johnson assumes his audience is smart, which is refreshing, and wants us to enjoy the buffet of whimsy laid out before us. This is a happy movie, tinged with bits of melancholy, and a joy to watch. What he’ll do for his third act is anybody’s guess.
B+ (1 hr., 49 min.; )