Monday 18 January 2010

The Brothers Bloom

“You don’t understand what my brother does. He writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels. With thematic arcs and symbolism and shit, and he wrote me as the vulnerable anti-hero, and that’s why you think you want to kiss me. It’s a con.”
Bloom (Adrien Brody) to Rose (Nora Zehetner)

At the beginning of Rian Johnson's follow-up to "Brick", in which he set a perfect film noir in a high school, ten-year old Bloom (Zachary Gordon) and thirteen-year old Stephen (Max Records, equally stunning in "Where the Wild Things Are") are strangers in just another small, mainstreet-town. As orphans, they have moved from foster family to foster family, each time returned for misbehaviour. When his brother falls in love with one of the eternal "other", a fair blonde-haired girl from a well-off family, Stephen develops the idea for his first con. Sensible to literature, and, as quoted above, with a keen sense of symbolism and thematic arcs, he leads them into a cave ("Tom Sawyer" comes to mind) after telling an awe-inspiring story about a hidden treasure. His argument is: it's a good con when everybody has what they wanted at the end. In this particular story, the children get an adventure, the local dry-cleaner has a very busy day cleaning their spoiled white clothes, and Bloom and Stephen get a cut of his profit, before being thrown out of another family.
The one person who didn't get what he wanted is Bloom, and he won't for the next 25 years of his life, as the two brothers rise in the society of criminally inclined underdogs (who, the film shows us, know how to throw a party). Before trying to  quit the life of a con man for the first time, and thereby quitting his brother, Bloom tries to articulate the conondrum of his life: his is merely a character in his brother's stories, he is leading "a written life", and the outcome is already predetermined in the schematics his brother drawings of his cons (which also serve as chapters in this film).
Bloom's attempt at an unwritten life, at first, fails miserably. When his brother finds him again, he is in a fortress in Montenegro, surrounded by empty bottles of alcohol. Clearly, articulating his desire does not suffice to free him from what he despises to be, and later in the movie, the very prospect of not knowing how a story will end scares him more than anything.
His brother proposes a last con: a rich heiress, who lives in the largest private estate in New Jersey, is their target. Unfortunately, Penelope (Rachel Weisz) isn't quite what might come to mind at the words "rich heiress". A prisoner in her own home until the age of nineteen after being misdiagnosed with severe allergies (actually, she says, she was allergic to the alloy on the testing needle), then caring for her sick mother, and never learning to deal with the outside world or other people, she says she has learned to find the magic in small things. As a very "Le destin d'Amelie Poulain"esque character, she will remain elusive during the entire film, working mostly as a focus poing for Bloom. We see her autodidactic genius when she demonstrates her abilites ("I collect hobbies", she says early in the movie) - she plays all instruments, knows martial art - and already at the beginning, as we hear what Bloom is supposed to do to get closer to her and bait her, we see that this isn't a simple con, as she is all too-willing to jump at the bait, yet remains unpredictable. It's Stephen's foresight and ability to truly predict every single movement his chess pieces make that dictates the course of this movie, and the question what happens when he loses control of this game (although the film leaves it open at the end to what extent he planned the great exit, like any good magician, he never explains his tricks and never shows his hand, even after the blood on his brother's sleeve has turned brown, betraying that it was all just a trick).
Ultimately, the question the movie poses is whether in the set-up of a con, true emotions can prevail, if what is real for Penelope can also be authentic for Bloom, who is merely playing the script his brother wrote for him. The way to the grand finale in a ruinous theatre is beautifully fleshed out with visual jokes (in the beginning, you see Joseph Gordon-Levitt dancing by himself at the gathering of the "underworld", seemingly referencing  Brendan from "Brick") and literary allusions (the names of the main protagonists already point to the direction of these allusions). Visually, the movie truly fulfills the promise of finding "magic in small things". This is probably one of the most underappreciated movies of 2009.

2009, Regie: Rian Johnson, mit Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell, Zachary Gordon, Max Records, Noah Segan, Andy Nyman.

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