A perfectly swell caper film that ultimately can't sustain the propelling giddiness of its first hour, The Brothers Bloom burns bright with brilliance before sputtering out in the end. In a case of extreme overreach, writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick) sets out to make a magical-realist brother-buddy screwball romantic comedy heist film, and actually comes close to making it all work. Given the cock-eyed neo-noir linguistic mania of his first film, Johnson seems to be just the right kind of blooming genius to pull off this kind of over-ambitious cinematic caper, but in the end he just sets himself an impossible task. Article continues below
Johnson's brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) appear in the film like some kind of magic vaudeville act gone to seed. A spectacularly goofy opener (including a fake magic cave and a one-legged cat locomoting about on a roller skate) about their childhood paints them as Damon Runyon-style scamps set free in a landscape of innocent marks. It's a cotton-candy world that the boys, with their slouchy hats and black suits, are going to take for everything they can. Their roles are cut and dried: Stephen as the storytelling author of their scams, Bloom as his moody and conflicted accomplice, fated to never live a real life of his own.
Cut to adulthood, after an unseen but very educational sojourn in Russia, and the bickering duo are casting about Europe with a gypsy hoodlum flair. They've got the same wardrobe but better patter, not to mention the addition of Bang Bang (a phenomenally deadpan Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese explosives expert who apparently speaks no English but functions like the brothers' own personal Q -- albeit one with innumerable jazzy wardrobe changes and a penchant for blowing up Barbie dolls with nitro. The only thing that's changed is that Bloom wants out of the con-artist life and Stephen can only entice him back by promising one final score: scamming the daffy, blindingly rich beauty Penelope (Rachel Weisz, playing it about 45 degrees away from sane). Stephen's only demand is that Bloom -- whom Brody plays as another of his emotionally blocked, ulcerous yearners -- can't fall in love with Penelope; so of course he does.
Johnson is eager to please as he sets up the building blocks of his story, packing the screen with diverting sights gags, slapstick, and exotic locales. The dialogue whips out smart and fast, packed with references to Melville and Dostoyevsky and deadpan lines like "I don't mean to vilify a whole country, but Mexico's a horrible place." Given its thicket of allusions and storybook air, The Brothers Bloom should remind one of a hundred other movies, but except for the occasional over-emphatic nod to Wes Anderson, it somehow doesn't.
Where the film goes wrong is hard to identify, but it arrives somewhere after the mid-point, when Johnson has thrown in one too many double-crosses and fake-outs. The arrival of Maximilian Schell as the brothers' vicious old Fagin-styled mentor also brings an unwelcome scent of heaviness and evil to a light confection that had been cracking along just fine until that point. Despite all his best efforts, Johnson and his cast wear themselves out long before the finish line, and by the time the film arrives at its climactic reveal in a decrepit seaside theater, its once-airborne feet are sadly well-anchored on the tired old ground.