Real sunsets may be beautiful, but they turn into dark uncertain nights.
— Stephen (Mark Ruffalo)
“As far as our own stories go,” says Bloom (Adrien Brody), “I think I’ve heard them all.” He and his brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) haven’t had an easy time of it, or so Bloom recounts. Early on, the boys learned that fiction was more manipulable than non. And so they took up storytelling with a vengeance, deeming themselves con artists as youngsters, duping peers and adults with a shifting mix of glee and abjection, believing their ignorant marks were somehow deserving of loss or abuse as they had suffered themselves.
Turned out by some 38 sets of foster parents, the titular anti-heroes of The Brothers Bloom take up their trade early. Mentored by a Faginish Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), the boys embrace their conveniently opposite roles, Stephen the brilliant and inventive skeptic, Bloom the mournful yet ever-hopeful romantic. As Stephen plans each con — writing them, Bloom asserts, “like Russians write novels” — he proposes to deliver to his younger brother with a happy ending, the fiction that continues to elude them and is figured — no surprise — as a pretty girl.
This despite and because of the boys’ one “rule,” that they never target women in their schemes (“It’s not a morality thing,” Bloom narrates, “It’s just a thing”). Imagining themselves smarter than everyone else, the brothers don’t imagine their marks much deserving of a similar end, but only as means. And so they press on, Stephen accompanied by Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), a pretty girl who quite pointedly speaks no English, thus ensuring that she is not in herself a happy ending for her employer/partner/lover, and Bloom lonesome and dolorous. Before each caper, Stephen maps out plot turns and expectations on flow charts, elaborate and ruthless and vaguely cute. Their pattern is fixed: after the rush of each gig, Bloom laments their cruelty and vows never to do it again (“I want a real thing”), and Stephen convinces him that just one more time will produce the satisfaction-enough that will make another con unnecessary: “You want an unwritten life,” he interprets.
And so Stephen devises to write that unwritten life, by way of the alleged last mark, Penelope (Rachel Weisz). No matter that she is a familiar caricature, a 33-year-old heiress who’s beautiful and charming and quirkily brilliant (that is, she “collects” hobbies, spending solitary afternoons in her New Jersey mansion teaching herself photography, painting, juggling, and break-dancing). Ah yes, she’s just so very very. Bloom falls for her instantly.
Like director Rian Johnson’s previous outing, Brick, The Brothers Bloom merges multi-generic elements in a way at once cunning and self- congratulatory. Unlike the first film, however, this one spends a lot of time ensuring that viewers must follow the cross-references and extra-textual allusions and get the mostly flaccid jokes, overusing explanatory flashbacks and Bloom’s narcissistic voiceover. From his perspective, Penelope’s naòvete is irresistible. For the rest of us, she’s mostly tedious, the designated vehicle of his inevitable redemption. As she delights in getting out of her house — traveling with the con men to Europe in search of riches and revenge (Bloom is especially keen to get back at Diamond Dog, owing to past abuses, briefly but emphatically noted).
The brothers’ initial scheme balloons as Penelope takes something like control — though Stephen seems perfectly capable of revising his original strategy as events unfold, just like any good script on-set doctor. Her enthusiasm is apparently contagious, and she not only wins over Bloom’s trust but also develops a friendship with Bang Bang, silently, of course, since the latter never speaks. She does, however, take her own fun in blowing things up. While the film treats her fascination with explosions and fires as something kinky and sweet, a bit of distraction from the plot proper, you may find yourself wishing that she’d find her way into the film’s center and maybe blow that up — if only to get its attention.
Still, Bang Bang’s subsidiary status makes sense if you take Bloom’s self-description seriously. He observes her as sidekick to his brother, as a sort of property (in filmic terms as well as economic or romantic), background material. Bang Bang’s status is rather indicative of the most persistent problem in The Brothers Bloom, its infatuation with narrative mechanics — the action sequence, the caper, the sidekick, the romantic interlude — as a system to sort out what’s real and fictional.
While Bloom seeks “a real thing,” Bang Bang embodies the essential nonsense of such desire. At the same time, however, Penelope becomes — for him or the film, or maybe both — that seeming “real thing,” in spite of her expressed disdain for the concept. “I’m not a planner,” she insists, much to her new boyfriend’s surprise. “I just do stuff.” Ah yes, he realizes (or more precisely, projects, which is sort of the same thing here), she must be the “unwritten life” for which he’s been yearning. She dismisses storytelling as ineffectual, a mere effort to fix the past or rearrange the future. Bloom is enchanted. Storytelling is “a lie that tells the truth,” he deduces. She sighs, “”I don’t know about truth.”
Overrated as truth may be, Penelope is supposed to signify it. This means that even as the con falls apart, or shapeshifts into another con, or begins to look like a horrifying betrayal on Stephen’s part, Penelope must remain intact. The brothers Bloom do eventually bloom, thanks to her. And she escapes from New Jersey.