Filmmaker Rian Johnson's first feature, Brick (2006), was a clever, stylized amalgam of the teen angst and film noir genres. After its release, Johnson critics praised Johnson for Brick's audacity and uniqueness, as well as for working with a minimal budget (IMDB estimates it at less than $1 million) and a relatively obscure cast (though the film was partially responsible for making Joseph Gordon-Levitt a sought-after actor). For his follow-up feature, The Brothers Bloom, Johnson has amassed a bigger budget ($20 million) and attracted award-winning actors, including Oscar-winners Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz, Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, and the widely respected Mark Ruffalo.
The Brothers Bloom chronicles the adventures of brothers Bloom (Brody) and Stephen (Ruffalo). Orphaned and outcast from a young age, the pair develops a con man routine: Stephen maps out schemes that allow Bloom to realize his desires by becoming someone he is not. After more than 20 years perfecting this art, Bloom feels that he is no longer an actual person but a character in Stephen's stories. To fix his brother's existential dilemma, Stephen proposes their last job -- a perfect con. The mark: Penelope Stamp (Weisz), a heiress who, despite infinite resources, has spent most of her life on her family's estate. The plan: win her over by taking her on a globetrotting adventure.
Just as Brick was steeped in the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, The Brothers Bloom makes ample use of literary allusions. The names Bloom and Stephen are allusions to Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the protagonists of James Joyce's Ulysses. To drive this home, we see Stephen compared to both the mythological Daedalus, a craftsman and designer of labyrinths, and to Daedalus' son Icarus, who famously plummeted to his death when he flew too close to the sun on wax wings his father had built for him. Leopold Bloom, the other hero of Ulysses, is a schlumpy, early-20th century version of the Greek hero who spent 10 years trying to get home to his wife Penelope. Again, Johnson is sure to convey his intent: At one point, a character (who himself is compared to a literary forbear, Dickens' Fagin) comments on how appropriate it is that the female lead in Stephen's masterpiece is named Penelope.
But, despite the film's literary pretensions, this is not highbrow material. Kikuchi's character, for example, is a Japanese explosives expert named Bang Bang; given few lines of actual dialogue, she uses mostly exaggerated facial expressions, making her a living cartoon character. This seems intentional: In the same speech in which Stephen is compared to a falling Icarus, there is another comparison to Wile E. Coyote looking down after running off the edge of a cliff. And the humor often devolves into the sophomoric and cheap, as a minute-long montage of Penelope demonstrating her hobbies to Bloom includes a shot of her juggling chainsaws.
The melding of high and low art is a common motif in postmodern work, and it is clear that Johnson is trying to create a pastiche in The Brothers Bloom. Self-awareness abounds, whether it is Bloom complaining about feeling like a character in a fictional work (wait, he is!) or a character pointing out an allusion that Johnson has placed into the film through the proxy of Stephen. What results is a movie that feels set in a completely artificial world -- and this is the point. The Brothers Bloom is a movie about the world's best con men, who are so good at what they do that they obliterate the line between reality and artifice.
The problem is that Johnson wants to have it every which way he can. We hear time and again that the brothers are the world's best con men, yet there is a never a sense that they are particularly clever -- we never enter the labyrinth Johnson promises us. He wants us to empathize with Bloom's condition and root for Penelope to save him, but how can we relate to an emotional connection between two figures who have consciously been stripped of their humanity? How can we appreciate Stephen's sacrifice for his brother when Johnson never tries to make us understand who they actually are?