It’s almost touching, really, to see a scarily talented young filmmaker who’s still struggling to overcome the tyranny of influence and develop his own voice. Rian Johnson’s first film, Brick, relocated film noir to high school; with its hyperkinetic camerawork and floridly stylized dialogue, it was an unapologetic (and first-rate) Coen brothers pastiche, though you could catch glimpses of Johnson’s own personality reflected in his banal yet evocative San Clemente locations. In his sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, he’s working more in the idiom of Wes Anderson: onscreen text, rapid-fire montages, deliberate anachronisms, proscenium framing. And once again, the result is every bit as impressive and entertaining as the real thing.
Granted, it’s not for every taste (just as Wes Anderson isn’t). You’ll know where you stand by the end of the seven-minute prologue, which is told entirely in rhyming verse—if you find that initial salvo clever and charming rather than cutesy and insufferable, you’re home free. Years later, the story picks up with con-man brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) setting their sights on wealthy, lonely heiress Penelope (Weisz)—though it’s not entirely clear whether Stephen, who’s the brains of the operation, is after her money or simply sees her as an ideal match for Bloom, who’s spent his entire life playing fictional roles and has lost all sense of who he actually is. And Penelope, who’s a bit like a depressive female version of Rushmore’s Max Fischer, has an agenda of her own, involving grand adventure.
Unlike most Wes-lite films, The Brothers Bloom mixes the jaunty tone and melancholic undercurrent in just the right proportion, lending the film a sort of effervescent gravity; Johnson also knows his way around a terrific sight gag and a casually tossed-off punchline. Best of all, he actually has something to say: This is the first con-man picture I’ve ever seen that not only recognizes our inherent distrust in everything we’re seeing but also takes the resulting feeling of detachment as its very subject. (You could almost read it as a rebuke to David Mamet.) If this is what Johnson is capable of during his apprenticeship, there are masterpieces in store.