‘The Brothers Bloom’: The Wrong Time for a Great Film

In defense of ‘The Brothers Bloom,’ the ugly duckling of Rian Johnson’s pre-‘Star Wars’ filmography.
The Brothers Bloom
By  · Published on December 15th, 2017

In defense of ‘The Brothers Bloom,’ the ugly duckling of Rian Johnson’s pre-‘Star Wars’ filmography.

Nothing reminds us of the subjective power of film than an attempt to rank the works of an individual filmmaker. For example, I’ve made no secret of my preference for Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work over his recent string of films; while most people gravitate towards There Will Be Blood and The Master, I find myself responding to the emotional bravado of Anderson’s earliest work more than his more austere exercises in filmmaking. That discrepancy, however, pales in comparison to my disconnect with most film critics on the work of Rian Johnson. While we can all agree that Brick is an impressive piece of film literacy made flesh, it is my love of The Brothers Bloom – and slight distaste towards Looper, Johnson’s most recent pre-Star Wars: The Last Jedi release – that shows how wildly our views can vary person-to-person. For my money, The Brothers Bloom is not only a film deserving of serious consideration; it may also bear the burden of being my favorite film directed by Johnson, period.

Coming on the heels of Johnson’s debut film BrickThe Brothers Bloom is the perfect example of a film that needs a little distance from its predecessor to be properly judged. For many critics, The Brothers Bloom was proof that Johnson’s instincts as a director veered too far into the kitsch. The New York Times described Johnson as one of a generation of filmmakers who “equate smart, serious filmmaking with manipulating genres and copping attitudes,” Variety dismissed him as a “director who’s full of beans but perhaps little else,” and Roger Ebert declared The Brothers Bloom as a film that is just “too smug and pleased with itself.” None of this is to say that The Brothers Bloom was poorly reviewed as a whole – it currently stands at 66% on RottenTomatoes and at 55% on MetaCritic – but at a time when some of the shine was off Wes Anderson’s star, critics seemed skeptical of movies that moved behind layers of artifice. Johnson’s film suffered the consequences.

But comparisons to Wes Andersons’ movies weren’t the only trends in film criticism holding The Brothers Bloom back. By the time Johnson’s film hit theaters in May 2009, critics and audiences alike had given voice to the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a trope coined by AV Club author Nathan Rabin that identified bubbly female characters in movies written to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” There’s no denying that Rachel Weisz’s Penelope fits within this mold; from her antisocial behavior to her idiosyncratic activities – “I collect hobbies,” she tells Bloom at one point – Penelope must have seemed a headache of a character in the wake of so many critical essays. Certainly, the power of Weisz’s performance allows us to raise questions about the accuracy of this portrayal; Penelope is allowed her own agency and sense of adventure in the movie and does not require permission from the Blooms to move the story along, but the fact that the character fits neatly within the confines of the Manic Pixie trope is something that cannot be ignored.

Taken together, the backlash against quirky female characters and aesthetics on steroids would have been more than enough to turn many people off Johnson’s work, and many others who rewatch it today may find these opinions unchallenged in the intervening years. But to dismiss The Brothers Bloom as a piece of “Andersonian preciousness” sells short Johnson’s attempts to converge realism and the fantastical in a single narrative. The Brothers Bloom does not simply glory in its own artifice; instead, the film takes on the bigger challenge of navigating fact, fantasy, and the disassociation that comes with falling in love with your own act of fiction. The makes the film a kind of inverted magical realism, where a world of fantastical elements is continually visited upon by crushing fact of reality. Whereas characters in other films may let their daydreams of romance and grand adventures seep into their everyday lives, The Brothers Bloom suggests that it is the quiet moments in the midst of fantasy – two hands clasped in the middle of a park, a few stolen moments spent in conversation with a friend – that are what truly matters to these characters.

Even setting aside some of these more generous interpretations of the film, The Brothers Bloom is still a movie that sets out to con its audience and delivers one of the more heartfelt final beats in heist-film history. When the film moves the spotlight off Weisz’s character, it frequently finds reason to shine it on Ruffalo’s Stephen, a man who genuinely cares for his younger brother but is unabashedly doomed by his own hubris. Johnson leaves bread crumbs throughout the film pointing to the film’s dramatic ending – early nods to the color of fake blood and Stephen’s promise to only con his brother on the day he dies are glaringly obvious on subsequent rewatches – and each combine to give Ruffalo’s character a kind of grandiose tragedy. Of course the film tries a little too hard: at its heart, it’s about a man who would rather die than pass up on the beautiful serendipity his story has to offer. To quote Roger Ebert again, this time reviewing Gabriele Muccino’s Seven Pounds: “Some people will find it emotionally manipulative. Some people like to be emotionally manipulated. I do, when it’s done well.”

Perhaps, then, it’s time to repurpose some of the more damning comparisons between Johnson and his contemporaries. At its best, The Brothers Bloom plays out like an unexpected cross between the Filmmakers Anderson, combining Wes’s love of timeless modernity and (young) Paul Thomas’s unapologetic bravado and raw humanism. Even the score, written by frequent Johnson collaborator Nathan Johnson, seems to be channeling some of the tinkling waltzes found in Jon Brion and Mark Mothersbaugh’s scores. Perhaps with a decade of distance and an ocean of studio films in between now and The Brothers Bloom‘s release, you may finally be able to reevaluate Johnson’s second movie as, at worst, deserving of equal footing with Brick and Looper. After all, no film that can twist the knife so effectively in the final moments can be devoid of value.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)