This is not an official Star Wars Saturday, but Star Wars adjacent, since Rian Johnson is set to write and direct Episode VIII.
We watched The Brothers Bloom a few years ago, shortly after falling in love with Rian Johnson’s Brick. I can’t say it got a fair shake from me. With Brick, we’d seen the film more than once (at least I had), and had gone through a whole exploration of film noir prior. We’d actually steeped ourselves in the genre Brick was turning in. So we got it.
On the other hand, we didn’t “research” con and heist films before watching The Brothers Bloom. We just jumped in. Of course, the film has charms whether you are familiar with its references or not, but knowing more means getting more. Re-watching it recently meant we not only had more cinematic knowledge to draw from, we also knew where the story was going. It was an absolute joy to watch the second time.
First of all, we hadn’t noticed that most of the Brick cast cameos in the second scene of the film–even Joseph Gordon Levitt and Lukas Haas are party “extras”. But that’s just an Easter egg. The real pleasure of the opening is in its structure. The narrative flashback of the Bloom Brothers sets up the plot and theme of whole film. In this way, it’s structurally tight, like Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. The film’s payoffs, twists, and conclusions are all telegraphed from this opening. This defining framework allows the rest of the film to be eclectic and absurd in its humor.
There a couple of literary allusions at play as well, most obviously James Joyce’s Ulysses and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In Ulysses, the two journeying characters are Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, and in the film they are Stephen and Bloom. In Joyce’s works involving Stephen Daedalus (which also includes Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Daedalus is the aspiring artist, like Stephen in the film is. Leopold Bloom is on a quest to return home to his wife in Ulysses, while Bloom in the film is seeking love and a sense of home. Instead, Stephen often sets him up to “act” the romantic hero in their cons and then pulls up their roots after the con is done. They are necessarily drifters, defined by Stephen’s con scripts. Bloom seeks “the unscripted life.” I’m much less familiar with The Brothers Karamazov, but Bloom mentions that Stephen’s cons are like Russian literature in their scope, complexity, and thematic content.
Inside this structural framework is a goofball, antic comedy. There are pratfalls and sight gags aplenty. Comic explosions. Absurd characters. In short, it’s very funny. However, it doesn’t have a straight comedic ending, which traditionally means a wedding or riding off happily into the sunset. Stephen sets up what makes a happy ending in the film through his description of the perfect con: 1) everyone gets what she wants, 2) the con becomes real. The ending delivers on Stephen’s version of happy, but it’s more ambiguous as far as the viewer is concerned.
Ultimately, it’s that twist of genre that elevates the film to something more philosophical, a deft exploration of the existential aspect of life. We write our own story or allow others to write it for us. The mark of a life well-lived is to become real, no longer playing the roles society sets out for us, but authentically engaging with and defining our own significance.
Comparing The Brothers Bloom to Brick and Looper, I think Brothers has the most cinematic style to it. The mise-en-scene and composition of shots are gorgeous, quirky, and a bit fairy tale-esque. Watching it offers a visual vacation.
The Brothers Bloom definitely deserves and rewards multiple viewings.
We watched Brick mostly because of Filmspotting. They were early champions of the film and eventually named their award for best overlooked film, The Golden Brick, after it. It’s a sort of suburban high school hardboiled film noir. If that doesn’t intrigue you, then that’s your problem.
Rian Johnson’s next film was The Brothers Bloom. It’s rare treat. Style and substance in equal measure propelled by solid engaging plotting. It works on several levels. Right at the surface it’s movie about the last con, the greatest con of the titular brothers. It’s a knowing, winking, nod to the genre, to genre, and to the act of acting. He doesn’t do things by halves.
Looper‘s like this, too. A time travel movie with all the tropes that gives you the last thing you want as the only possible outcome. Chances are you didn’t get it the first time through. Not because you’re lacking in faculties, but because you don’t love it the way Johnson does. You don’t know where it came from deep in your firmament.
I’d been lobbying for a rewatch of The Brothers Bloom because I hadn’t been much of a fan. After watching Brick a couple more times and Looper, I realized I probably hadn’t gotten it. When Johnson landed Star Wars VIII, I saw my moment.
Erin tells me there are Joyce riffs, but the viewer doesn’t really need to know anything more than what’s said out loud. Of course even what’s said aloud goes a little metafictional now and then. There’s a Melville parallel spelled out in dialogue. Stephen’s a romantic in every sense. He scripts his cons like literary fictions, dense with references to classic works and pregnant with meaning.
The opening scene ends with Bloom questioning something their latest mark said. “Four months and a thousand years ago. That’s Kipling, isn’t it? He stole that from Kipling.” Stephen says, “No,” right before the cut. It’s actually from a film, The Man Who Would be King, based on a Kipling novella whose narrator was unnamed. For the film they called him Kipling. Why was the mark talking like that? Is Stephen conning Bloom?
“Bloom, the day I con you is the day I die.”
The Brothers Bloom works a lot like his other two movies, taking the conventions of a genre, piling a few more genres on top of them, and adhering to it all as strictly as possible while bringing the humor. So, it’s a con movie. But it’s got a tragic hero. Who knows he’s a tragic hero. Which makes it worse for him. He can’t enjoy it in the doomed way a Byron or a Shelley might.
And actually, it’s got two tragic heroes. But there’s a sort of limited PoV thing going on so that you don’t really see the one until he upstages the other. Breaks him out of the narrative if you will. Something he’s been trying to do since they were kids.
I’m trying not to let myself hope for a Star Wars movie with this kind of tight, circular plotting and self awareness. It’s not really working. I love this kind of thing.