The story of Penelope and The Brothers Bloom, we’re told by expert narrator Ricky Jay, is one of note in the imagined history of the con man, and like that—poof!—our guard is up. As surprisingly rare as the con caper film is, we know we are in for a pack of dirty, dirty lies, woven tightly like a mystery turned on its ear. Amid the giddy dishonesty of Rian Johnson’s oft-delayed sophomore feature The Brothers Bloom, though, the idea is taken further: What is a lie but a story? And as we play the writer in our life story, who’s to say we all don’t lie, at least a little?
The film begins with charming and uncommon energy. We first meet the Bloom Brothers as home-hopping orphans realizing their talent for orchestral untruths, then quickly skip ahead to the fire-and-firearms finale of their latest score. We learn of Stephen’s (Mark Ruffalo) talent for storytelling, his cons aspiring to the literary as much as the larcenous. On the job, though, he opts to hang back and direct his leading man Bloom (Adrien Brody), so convincing and often truly sensitive that we catch ourselves believing even as we know we should suspect him. A third partner in crime, known only as Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi ), is a Japanese explosives enthusiast who provides the firepower.
Bloom’s conscience has won an overdue victory, and he retires to an unassuming Montenegro cliffside, where he is eventually found by his brother, who naturally proposes one last con. The mark? High-spirited, mildly epileptic heiress Penelope (a never-lovelier Rachel Weisz), who lives alone in her New Jersey estate collecting hobbies like harp-playing, stunt juggling, and plowing carelessly around in a canary yellow Ferrari.
“No women,” Bloom initially objects, and we understand it as a long-standing rule; the game, after all, is to get close to the mark and earn his trust, and emotional reciprocation is the death of the long con. He’s instantly taken with Penelope, and knows that things will go awry. And he agrees nonetheless. Their credo is that “the perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just the thing they wanted,” and Bloom is, after all, trying to determine just what it is he really wants.
Then, as in any caper worth its salt, Penelope and The Brothers Bloom take us on a trip. Stephen’s latest yarn has them smuggling in Eastern Europe, then fencing their spoils in Latin America, and the film often breathes best in the confines of a train car. Aside from Montenegro’s shores and a strange centerpiece in Prague, The Brothers Bloom isn’t quite a visual travelogue, but for a time the jet-setting suggests the epic in the episodic.
We marvel at how Stephen’s story seems to be unfolding, even when he occasionally loses the reins. But the shared third act of Stephen’s con and Johnson’s film finds their grips loosening for good. Emotions flare up, and a grudge rooted in the Brothers’ tantalizingly hazy history casts a growing shadow. Perhaps most damagingly to the film’s crowd-pleasing spirt, the globetrotting comes to an abrupt pause, spreading its travelers back to where they each began. And The Brothers Bloom leaves something special closely behind even as it fires up a surprising coda, wily to the very end.
The film has been compared to Wes Anderson’s work, which is an understandable reading but also a bit shallow; the superior first half of the film trades occasionally on its preciousness, and it’s at least fair to say that Rian Johnson works here from the same pool of influences. (Remember that Hal Ashby was spiking his pictures with Cat Stevens tracks long before Rushmore took his cue.) But it is also generous in its spirit, playing out with lyrical nonchalance where Anderson’s films, however heartfelt, cling to micro-managed prose.
Johnson’s previous film was 2005’s Brick, a high-school riff on film noir so thoroughly realized that it transcended its gimmick. Here he confirms a knack for opening up his story’s universe to the audience rather than simply putting it on display. We accept Penelope and the Blooms’ logic, embrace their world as real, and want to be told more of their stories, more of their lies. The Brothers Bloom is a work of genuine creativity, and that’s reason enough to hold it high among the season’s offerings.