Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008)

Storytelling is an art and film making is an illusion with storytelling as one of the aspects of that illusion. When the two come together, it becomes something that reaches a height beyond which either could by themselves. Brick, the first film from writer/director Rian Johnson took the usual structure and tropes of a noir and put them in a high school movie. It was done with essentially no money and it is, without doubt, the film to which the latest incarnation of Joseph Gordon Levitt's career can be attributed to. It's fun in the great way old noir could be, tense in the way old noir could be and for those who saw it, was the announcement that there was a deeply talented young writer/director with a promising career ahead. If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth a viewing.

His second film, The Brothers Bloom, does very much the same thing Brick did. Instead of using the noir tropes and structure though, this time he's using basic ideas and structure of a con film. Instead of taking all of those things and putting them in a high school movie, this time he's taking them and putting them in a romantic comedy. That description isn't something completely unusual. We've seen that film a number of times before, and they're so often mediocre that if I were reading it, I'd probably just roll my eyes and move on. Rian Johnson takes those elements and brings out the best in them to end up creating a truly entertaining, intelligently sentimental, emotionally effecting, but not corny or sappy while also being a metaphorically interesting film.

Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody play brothers, the brothers Bloom of the title, who are also con men. Rinko Kikuchi play their partner and fellow con artist. Rachel Weisz plays the secluded, odd, wealthy mark they've set their sights on. It's a film with a cast that is genuinely perfect for the roles they're all playing. Every one of them is delivering a performance that helps to take the material above both of the genres that it flirts with. Robbie Coltrane and Maximillian Schell show up in small supporting roles and also do great work adding dimension to the film and the story. The performances are outstanding and all of these actors are completely committed to making the story work and be the most important thing in the film. All of the major characters have both big moments and moments of subtlety and changes in tone throughout the film that the actors all nail. Rinko Kikuchi has almost no lines in the film, something that is a conscious choice for her character, and with little to no dialog, she also knocks it out of the park, creating a character that's part Buster Keaton and part Gogo Yubari.

Johnson has done something extremely unusual by being able to both meet and still slightly subvert audiences expectations of what a con film is and what it's going to do with a story. His writing is crisp, but doesn't lose the kinds of subtleties that make for interesting characters that are worth following over the period of the films story. There are some great humorous moments that derive from the story and character and therefore don't feel cheap. Even more importantly, and even more unusual, the aspect of the story concerning the romance between two of the characters doesn't feel cheap and unearned either. I count that as a near miracle because I so very rarely see it in contemporary film. Part of that is definitely due to the fact that the film definitely contains a thread of the whimsical and fantastic, but it's more a quiet attitude and suggestion than it is wearing it on it's sleeve as an identifier or some kind of cutesy attempt to circumvent the process of developing a story and characters the audience will be invested in. Johnson makes even that a genuine aspect of the story and the romanticism of the characters.

The short version of the story is that this is a near perfect match up of casting and writer/director, with all of the other elements falling together and fitting in such a way that it creates something both somewhat new, but also familiar. The design, the music, the cinematography all make strong contributions to creating a story and characters that are interesting, and that grab the audience curiosity from the beginning and carries them through a story that's fun, emotionally satisfying without being pandering and has some legitimate perspective to share on human nature. Hopefully, as Rian Johnson's career continues, he'll be able to continue to take the talent that produced The Brothers Bloom and Brick, and continue to write and direct films which are as deeply humanist as these first two films have been. If he can carry that through as he ages, he's going to be one of the most interesting and vital voices in American film making.

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