"The Brothers Bloom" is a movie stock full of great ideas that it executes without any apparent knowledge of what makes a movie work. It's filmed in some of the most beautiful places in the world and captures them blandly. It's step-by-step full of great con-games that we don't care about. It's got one of the most interesting heroines in years that it ultimately leaves to the side, unaware of how to use her. It's constantly suggesting great artists (Melville, Dostoevsky) and it's opening act - a Ricky Jay-narrated history of the Brothers Bloom's humble beginnings - promises greatness. But the movie doesn't deliver.
The story: Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody started conning as children, and never stopped, and now, as adults, they're locked together like the siblings in "Les Enfants Terribles," only capable of inhabiting their own world of deception and whimsy. Ruffalo's the head and likes it that way and Brody's the heart and wants out, wants to find happiness somewhere else, in the "unwritten life." Ruffalo sets up One Last Job for the two of them, and the mark is Rachel Weisz (the heroine), a reclusive millionaire and collector of hobbies. As this is a con-movie, any further explanation is unnecessary.
Rian Johnson, the film's director and director of "Brick," has fine taste, as he flaunts constantly, but his movies are an argument that good taste does not a great artist make. Like the lowliest imitator, he wants to do something like his favorites, but he hasn't put much thought into why those movies worked on him. "The Big Sleep" has the period dialogue, the shadows and all that, but it's great because of the chemistry, the mood, what's happening under the surface. "Brick" has no mood, it's all surface, all words and cinematography, a truly empty film. With "The Brothers Bloom," Johnson is trying to make "The Sting" by way of Wes Anderson, the French New Wave (and a little David Mamet), but mostly misses the comedy of Anderson, the style of the New Wave and doesn't even come close to the metaphysical suspense of a Mamet film.
For instance: Ruffalo has a sidekick/girlfriend played by Rinko Kikuchi. Her name is "Bang Bang" because she likes explosives, and she doesn't speak a single line of dialogue. This alone is gimmicky enough, an easy way of forging a Character without thinking for a second who she might be. The movie explains she just up and appeared to the Brothers one day, and will disappear, one day, in the same fashion. So she's an almost supernatural character, I guess, but to what purpose? Quirkiness? Kikuchi eats up the attention in any scene she's in, simply because we want to know more about her, but Johnson insults her and the audience by keeping her a prop, like the hamburger phone in "Juno." In one Emotional Montage at the end, she sings, which would be a great moment in a better movie but here is handled so off-the-cuff and casually we just sort of shrug it off. A couple short scenes later she disappears into thin air in front of Brody, so we think, that was it? And then she pops up again, to do nothing, and disappears again. Johnson doesn't seem to be thinking at all.
But he might fool you. The dialogue is finely-honed, but too much so, it becomes awkward, clunky, speaking to ideas Johnson hasn't completed rather than ones the characters are having spontaneously. The movie really, really wants to be as dialogue-driven as a Mamet movie but falls short in its excess of artifice and complete lack of wit. That said, Brody, Weisz and Ruffalo create likable characters simply by appearing on screen; they're all such great actors we're almost happy enough just to watch them have some fun. Weisz especially, her eccentric is so convincing at times it makes the movie's shortchanging her so much more troubling. Her character is built up to have a mystery about her, something intriguing seems to lie beneath the surface, but as it goes on we sadly realize that's more to do with Weisz's skill and less to do with Johnson's writing.
The plot keeps going and going and going, the movie feels twice as long as "The Dark Knight" and about a quarter as interesting. There's a con, and then there's another con, and then another, and they're all pretty well thought-out except that the outcomes don't mean anything to us because Johnson hasn't spent enough time figuring out who his characters are, and what we want for them. Brody is frustratingly ineffectual, and Ruffalo convinces us he knows all the answers, he just never tells us what they are. Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell pop up, Schell with an eye-patch and a drama-class-level costume, and do nothing.
And then there's the last revelation, and the ending, which could've been beautiful and poignant, if only Johnson had any idea how to take us there. He doesn't. His head's in the right place, he just needs to use it more, and – most importantly – discover his heart. Not a bad movie, just not one worth seeing.