With comic canapés of verbal wit and visual gags, “The Brothers Bloom” is a lively globe-trotting caper with contrasting brothers on their supposed last con. It’s also a touching study of sibling dynamics, and even a sweet romance between trickster and target. Whichever angle a viewer chooses – and the misdirection of the swindle affords ample investigation of the serpentine storylines – the smart sophomore effort from Rian Johnson is a fetching delight manifested with enough depth to avoid being frivolous.
Launched with a snappy opening flashback of the brothers Stephen and Bloom as itinerant foster kids (and accentuated by the melodious narration of Ricky Jay), the film underscores the titular pair’s disparate view of the grifter’s life; at 13, the elder Stephen is the assured schemer; Bloom, younger by three years, is thoughtful and ambivalent. Twenty five years later, after another successful duping, the brothers are lining up the drinks in a present-day Berlin nightclub with a striking Weimar Republic vibe. They are joined by their Campari swilling explosives cohort Bang Bang (played beguilingly by “Babel’”s Rinko Kikuchi). But Bloom isn’t celebrating. (The look of this scene highlights a particularly effective aspect of the film. Clearly set in modern times – a main character drives a canary yellow Lamborghini Diablo, erratically – “The Brothers Bloom” has the distinct feel of an evocative bygone era. The brothers wear black suits, their heads generally topped with derby hats, and travel by steamer and train. Johnson and his skillful crew – cinematographer Steve Yedlin, set decorator Sophie Newman, and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor – make sure the pre-WWII vibe isn’t just coy retro.)
The disillusioned Bloom (Adrian Brody) desires “an unwritten life,” where unscripted chance and happenstance supplant his brother’s conjuring. Stephen is sanguine, intelligent and manipulative. Unleashing his shrewd charm, he convinces Bloom to undertake a final orchestrated scenario. (Mark Ruffalo’s cocky and cool Stephen wouldn’t go amiss in “The Sting.”)
So the trio descends on New Jersey and the palatial estate of their last mark, Penelope Stamp (a wonderfully expressive and cleverly funny Rachel Weisz), an unconventional socialite earnestly mastering her myriad hobbies – playing the harp, unicycling, and juggling, to name but a few – in the vast rooms and hallways of her home, alone. The antithesis of the brothers, Penelope experiences life whimsically with no planning, just doing. She’s not unhinged; merely not moored.
She immediately bewitches Bloom. As played by Brody, who’s blessed with a pliable face and a strong whisper, and carries on from the fine work of “The Darjeeling Limited,” the younger, vulnerable brother is endearing. Bloom is conflicted and smitten as he tries to warn Penelope that “this isn’t an adventure.” With a beaming face crimped with wonder, she sums up their escapade, and the movie. “What are you talking about? It totally is.”
As the courtship deepens and the international con becomes mazier, mysterious interlopers of enigmatic intent appear. Robbie Coltrane is “The Curator,” a colluding Belgian played as a shotgun-wielding Hercule Poirot. And the estimable Maximilian Schell clearly revels in his role as Diamond Dog, the brothers’ mentor and rival. He materializes in an outré´ tumult of hair, beard and cloak; his face accentuated by a wildly baubled eyepatch.
Supremely entertaining, “The Brothers Bloom” is enlivened by Johnson’s jaunty, briskly-paced direction. As both director and screenwriter, he deftly juggles the multitudinous elements with a flair for sustained storytelling as the foursome traverse around the world from Montenegro to Prague, St. Petersburg and Mexico. With this film, Johnson shows himself to be a master of meaningful mischief. The consummate quality of “The Brothers Bloom” means that that I eagerly want to check out this emerging talent’s first film — 2005’s well regarded high school noir “Brick” — and keenly anticipate his next project, the hit-men, time travel sci-fi flick “Looper.”