Art feeds the soul. Trite, I know, but true. With music that I connect with, this experience arrives in a rush of nigh-religious euphoria, a shivering electric high that shoots up my spine and makes me feel like I’m levitating. With films, I can tell I’ve had a truly meaningful experience because I leave the cinema with my head abuzz with ideas. Something in the film will spark of part of my brain, and I’ll rush home and start writing almost straight away. In 2010, for all the wonderful films I saw, only one triggered this kind of reaction. Inception was a mind-twisting masterpiece, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World was a multi-layered pop-culture brainsplosion and Toy Story 3 turned me into a blubbering heap of manly weeping before lifting me up again, but in 2010, my heart belonged to The Brothers Bloom.
The Brothers Bloom wasn’t widely seen in the UK (or the US for that matter, where it was released over a year earlier) but it’s sort of a tough film to sell to a wide audience. It follows the exploits of Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), two con artist brothers, alongside their “fifth Beatle” and explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, once again playing mute), who are looking to steal the fortune of an eccentric heiress who has lived at home her whole life, played with effortless charm and enthusiasm by Rachel Weisz. Of course, things don’t go quite to plan, and there are double crosses and unexpected twists a-plenty. So far, so standard fare, right? However, the whole film takes place in a world not unlike that constructed by Wes Anderson in his films – a sort of timeless, hyper-real universe where characters cross the Atlantic by steamer, rather than jet, and children still wear their crisp white Sunday best to church.
This sort of filmic universe created by director Rian Johnson (of the equally brilliant and underseen Brick) mirrors the tone of the film quite appropriately, because The Brothers Bloom is a film about films, or more accurately, a story about stories. From it’s opening flashback, with narration in verse, the film draws attention to the way we consume stories, and the way we use them to define our lives. Stephen, the older brother and brains of the operation, constructs his cons “like dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit” and the whole film plays with the ideas of life becoming fiction and vice versa. For all those critics who broke down Inception into a metaphor for filmmaking, The Brothers Bloom offers an examination that is both more overt and subtle. Rachel Weisz’s Penelope talks of deciding what sort of story she wants her life to be, while Bloom has grown tired of being a character in the tales his brother weaves. The idea of agency within someone else’s story is picked apart as characters struggle against their roles and try to find their own path, and when you take a step back and think about them as characters in a film, the whole thing takes on a metatextual flavour that wrinkles the brain quite effectively.
Of course, the film isn’t just a clever examination of the human instinct to search for narrative. It’s also a fantastic caper film, the sort of good-natured romantic adventure that you rarely see nowadays. The timeless atmosphere reinforces the feel that it’s a throwback to an older Hollywood, as does the choice of actor. Brody and Weisz are both established character actors (Weisz has come close to breaking through, but even with The Mummy series, never really convinced as a straight-up blockbuster love interest) who you wouldn’t normally attach to such lightweight fare, but they bring a classic charm to the film, and both seem to be having great fun. Brody displays a hangdog charm and desperation throughout, convincing as someone who can only truly be himself when he’s playing a part, and as for Weisz…well, if there is another actress out there who can make the audience fall as quickly and completely in love with a character as Rachel Weisz, I’m not sure I want to know. She manages to balance Penelope’s naiveté with her fierce intelligence and array of skills (Penelope collects hobbies, from break dancing to karate to card tricks) while still selling the central love story between her and Bloom. Mark Ruffalo continues to be dangerously charismatic in everything he does, and Rinko Kikuchi shows some impressive comedy chops as Bang Bang, playing the deadpan snarker of the gang despite not saying more than 3 words in the whole film.
So what secured The Brothers Bloom so firmly into my heart and soul? I can’t say for sure – it’s that unknowable alchemy of context, state-of-mind and art all at play, but I can say that I went in with high expectations and it still managed to surprise me with how much I enjoyed it. I’m a sucker for postmodern, metatextual shenanigans, for a well-executed caper and for the kind of stylised world that The Brothers Bloom weaves around you. The soundtrack was understated and unique, the plot was twist-filled without descending into incomprehensibility, and the tone manoeuvred from physical comedy to heart-breaking tragedy without ever succumbing to mood whiplash. More than anything, it is a work of charm, both in direction and performance. In the film, Stephen notes that “the perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted”, in which case The Brothers Bloom has pulled the wool over my eyes completely.