14 August 2011
Sometimes you pick up a film because, let’s say, it has two impossibly appealing male leads. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with two guys I like to watch more than Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo. And in case that wasn’t enough incentive to watch Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom (and remember Johnson’s début film, the amazing Brick?), the story — about two con men — is a longtime fascination of mine. (Let me pause to note that this is not my favorite film storyline — that belongs Dysfunctional Family films, movies about Incompetent Criminals, and films about Madness and Sanity.) But guess what? The girls steal the show out from underneath these male actors. I bow down at the feet of Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi.
Quick rundown on the tale, which is a good one: Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) have been con men since children in foster care. Great con men. Thing is, Stephen has always been the one who had the true calling for it; Bloom has become increasingly reluctant, uninspired by his brother’s twisting, turning plans. He has begun to feel that his brother controls everything in his life, but he reluctantly agrees to engage in one more con, taking as their mark a reclusive heiress, Penelope, who lives alone in a New Jersey mansion (Weisz).
The last time I saw Weisz playing it for laughs was in The Mummy (1999), and boy did she drop that act for The Mummy Returns (2001). She’s so good here as a lonely, odd girl who teaches herself to play the banjo (and everything else) — and she’s that good because she’s not hamming it up. All those intervening years of increasingly meaty parts have made Weisz incredibly watchable, a canny actor.
In the film, the brothers Bloom find Penelope an eager mark, but not a predictable one. Unlike all their previous cons, Penelope doesn’t care about money — she becomes interested in con artistry itself, and is perfectly happy to use her funds to learn how to do it. Of course Bloom falls in love with her; how could he not? But the nicest trick of this film is making us fall for her too. She’s so earnest, so serious, and so accidentally beautiful; the drop-dead Weisz somehow behaves like those women we all know who don’t seem to understand how fetching they are. Seemingly without effort, Weisz pulls the rug out from underneath those other accomplished actors and compels us to watch her, makes us wonder what’s going on in her head. I’d like to say that Brody and Ruffalo are in on it, but I think they, too, must have been swept off their feet and left helpless to recover their control over the film.
Not that Weisz pulls off this caper alone. She’s assisted by Kikuchi playing Bang-Bang, an explosives expert and new member of the Bloom brothers’ team. In case you’ve forgotten, Kikuchi was magnificent in Babel (2006) as the deaf, angry Japanese teenager Chieko — the most stunning bit of acting in that film, even more notable because she did it without speaking. This part couldn’t be more different — Bang-Bang is wry (just look at the smirk on those lips), much, much smarter even than the Blooms, and has an even more daring sense of fashion.
Kikuchi is mute here as well, a choice I’m still mixed on. I’m sorry to see that such a great actor is getting into English-speaking films only without speaking. And I’m sorry she’s only slotted in here as a distant fourth place behind the other leads. But I can also see that Bang-Bang is a delightful part and that it’s a radically different one than in the tragic story of Chieko, allowing her to show the West more completely what she can do with her face. Kikuchi is having a great deal of fun.
Bang-Bang pursues her own agenda, but she likes Penelope, and the two of them form a strange friendship. Because the film is told via the perspective of Bloom, we aren’t given much of a glimpse into it — but it only seems all the more interesting when viewed from the outside. In fact, outside might be the best explanation for these two women: unlike the charming brothers, they don’t try to bank on their personal appeal or pretend to be anything other than the odd, laser-focused female outsiders they are. They are strange and compelling because they aren’t really seeking to please.
I don’t want to oversell the film: it’s a kind of B+ film that ultimately can’t quite make it out of that ranking (despite the cast and those beautiful clothes, which Brody wears as well as Weisz and Kikuchi). But it’s one of those great little movies that you watch late at night and feel warm and happy and committed to, particularly when we get to see Brody and Weisz falling in love — for by that time we are just as disarmed as Bloom is, and just as eager for their lips to make contact. It’s de-lovely. And for myself, I’m starting to think about catching up on the Weisz back catalogue.