The Brothers Bloom, a rambling lark about a pair of sibling con artists, is a modest yard sale of uncut quirkiness worth visiting, even if you don't find anything you really want to buy. When he's not dithering about the connection between performance and reality, the liberties writer-director Rian Johnson takes with genre conventions and the good humor of his actors nearly compensate for the movie's hollow center.
The titular brothers are Steven (Mark Ruffalo), the mastermind, and Bloom (Adrien Brody), the reluctant role-player. When Bloom (that's right, his name may be Bloom Bloom, but that mystery remains unsolved) expresses his latent desire to escape the long con and live "an unwritten life," Steven finds him one last mark — a New Jersey heiress whose combination of extravagant wealth and borderline-autistic social awkwardness Bloom soon finds irresistible — and swears he'll never design another novelistic scam again. But what sucker would ever believe a grifter's oath?
The lead actresses' performances in The Brothers Bloom best exemplify its loose-limbed, fanciful spirit. The brothers' "fifth Beatle" is a silent Japanese woman named Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), a shadowy gal Friday with a knack for explosions who lurks in the back corners of the frame like an anime femme fatale. And as the Jersey heiress, Rachel Weisz is capable of some unpredictable fun; Johnson's comic montage of the absurd hobbies she's mastered in her free time is superior to most of his other twinkly foreground-background sight gags.
Weisz looks and acts like what The Onion's film critics call a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" here, but she's older, more sensitive, and more damaged; her shocked whimpering and enthusiastic yelps after her first kiss are joyful noises, but she's even better during a long, mysterious scene when she performs a series of card tricks while telling Brody the revised version of her life story.
The men are less fun, although watching them at work is a pleasurable diversion, like thumbing through a grocery-checkout magazine starring nontraditional leading men. Their roles seem switched, though: Brody plays the kind of handsome defeatist role Ruffalo normally inhabits, while Ruffalo plays a laconic trickster whose plots and counterplots seem a little out of his reach.
Johnson's a talented filmmaker with a taste for both obvious and obscure literary allusions. You may catch the Magritte reference, but who could remember that little Montenegro, where Bloom does his soul-searching after each con is over, is the country that awarded the Great Gatsby a medal during World War I? The allusion to one of the great fakes in American literature is appreciated, but stacking up allusions doesn't always produce a collage, and collages don't always breathe new life into familiar materials.
Perhaps it's too much to ask Johnson to do the same trick twice. His 2005 debut, the high school film noir Brick, was and is an exemplary act of cultural recycling. Yet, in spite of The Brothers Bloom's nods and winks to Dickens, Joyce, and Melville, I kept waiting — vainly — for something further to follow from this Masquerade.
The Brothers Bloom
Opens Friday, June 5th