Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

This picture subverts itself with the endless refrain of “Everything’s a con, everything’s a con, everything’s a con,” and the flaw is damn near fatal. It’s the story of brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), con men extraordinaire who cook up the last great con because Bloom has had enough and wants to do something else with his life. Or something. I couldn’t really tell. Bloom says that he wants out, but it’s sort of hard to get a bead on what he’s feeling and why he’s feeling it because he wears the same expression - think Eeyore - throughout pretty much the entire film - even after he meets Penelope (and director Rian Johnson is winking at Homer here, right?), a free spirit trust fund baby who conjures an image of what Rose from Two and a Half Men might have been like if she had originally been written by Lemony Snicket.

See, Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is the kind of girl you want to make it home to so desperately that you lash yourself to the masts to avoid dashing your ship to pieces when you pass the Sirens; she’s the girl you meet in college who does all of the impulsive things and smiles at everyone and eats life and personifies the Garth Brooks lines “Life is not tried / It is merely survived / If you’re standing outside the fire.” She’s a little bit Victor in The Rules of Attraction, except that she never leaves the house.

So when Stephen writes up a con involving her and one million of her dollars, he tells Bloom that the only thing he has to make sure to do is not fall in love with her, which Bloom inevitably does - but you know it’s going to happen pretty much from the moment he lays eyes on her, though this is more because of how long Johnson lingers on Brody looking at her than because of any change in Bloom’s expression; and since we’ve already heard Stephen say that everything is a con, there’s not a whole lot left for us to look for, is there? After all, if you say that everything is a con, then that pretty much gives you license to twist and turn the plot in whichever way seems most expedient.

This Johnson does, and he lays on the symbolism thick and heavy - what color is dried blood again? The subversion comes toward the end when Bloom comes clean and tells Penelope that everything - their luring her into their game, the plot to fence the book, the way he feels about her - is a con; except that during that whole stretch of telling her the truth about what they’ve been lying about, he lies about the one thing that has been authentic all along - the way he feels about her. But they’ve got their Get Out Of Jail Free card!

Everything’s a con!

This may be true, but it doesn’t automatically mean that everything is also interesting. The brothers themselves are so two-dimensional that if you looked at them in profile they would seem to disappear. Ruffalo, ordinarily pretty dependable, plays most of the movie like he has some kind of cramp (possibly caused by anxiety at having lost his razor); and Brody looks like he should be in an ad for Cymbalta, not a would-be wacky crime caper. Penelope is more developed, at least during the early part of the movie where she’s playing a latter-day non-suicidal Emily Dickinson; later, when she turns into sort of a distaff version of Leo Getz, she trades interesting for annoying, to the detriment of the film. Weisz does a good job with the role, though, for the most part; but the film starts to sink under the weight of its overwrought intrigues, and the revealing symbols at the end come off as simpering fluff. If there was a good idea for a story here, it got lost somewhere along the way in a frenetic attempt to do way too much at once.

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