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July 19, 2009

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Caper flick a comedy blast

WITH his 2006 debut "Brick," writer-director Rian Johnson had the vision and ambition to make a film noir set at a California high school.

With his follow-up, "The Brothers Bloom," he's made ... well, he's made a Wes Anderson film, something that's idiosyncratic enough to qualify as a genre all its own.

If Johnson lacks originality here, though, he makes up for it in vibrant energy and visual flair.

If he's copying - or borrowing liberally, to be more charitable - at least he's made a better Anderson movie than Anderson himself has in about a decade.

Eccentric characters, clever background details, anachronistic wardrobe choices and twee title cards announcing each new chapter - they're all there, but Johnson's own complex, verbal voice does emerge from these familiar aesthetic trappings.

His con-man comedy is a blast, a romp anchored by strong actors who don't get many chances to show their funny sides.

Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody star as Stephen and Bloom, brothers who bounced between foster homes as children for their various schemes.

Now, as adults, they've turned those schemes into a lucrative way of life.

Stephen, the brains of the operation, draws up the elaborate plans as a means of entertaining his brother, who functions as their star.

Bloom, the romantic, inevitably allows himself to get too involved emotionally and now swears he wants out for good.

And so "The Brothers Bloom" follows that tried-and-true conceit of pulling off one last job which, naturally, becomes way more complicated than anyone could have imagined.

Rachel Weisz is completely charming in a never-before-seen way as Penelope, a lonely heiress who starts out as the brothers' mark but becomes their exuberant partner in crime.

The fast-paced montage of hobbies she's mastered to occupy herself over the years - juggling, unicycling, playing the banjo, making cameras out of watermelons - is a scream, but it also plays like the montage of school clubs Max Fischer belongs to in Anderson's "Rushmore."

The other woman in their posse, Rinko Kikuchi (an Oscar nominee for "Babel"), is an unexpected scene stealer, delivering a sly, silent performance as the brothers' chain-smoking explosives expert, appropriately named Bang Bang.

Controlled lunacy

She speaks volumes with just a twinkle in her eye, a bemused smile or whatever gadget she produces and her presence adds to the film's controlled lunacy.

Their screwball adventures take them to Greece, Prague, Montenegro, St Petersburg and the beaches of Mexico.

The con itself doesn't really matter all that much - it has something to do with smuggling a valuable, ancient book, which requires Penelope to put up US$1 million - because the key to "The Brothers Bloom" is the way all these relationships develop.

Some of this is predictable, sure: you could see Bloom falling for Penelope before they even meet (and boy, do they meet cute, if you're into pain).

The way she blossoms with him, and them, is still a joy.

Ruffalo and Brody bring weight and a tinge of melancholy to the otherwise frivolous proceedings, though, by wisely underplaying their roles.

They tease and torment each other as siblings do, but they also find chemistry in the honesty and heart with which they address each other during serious moments.

With the subtle way "The Brothers Bloom" develops, it's enough to make you think we're the ones being conned after all.


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