19 September, 2011

New Forest Film Festival: The Brothers Bloom Review = The Critic's Cut

[Author's Note: I submitted a shorter version of this Review to the New Forest Film Festival's New Forest Film Critic of the Year 2011 Competition. It was short listed in the Senior Category (over eighteen), and then was runner up. At the awards presentation Mark Kermode described it as "really, worryingly good".
To meet the 500 word limit for the competition, I chopped about 40% out of my first draft, and it was a valuable lesson in self sub editing. The version below only restores bits that I really regretted taking out, particularly the penultimate section discussing the faux literary trend. ]

I. Prologue

Rian Johnson's new movie The Brothers Bloom seems to be answering several obtuse questions:
1. If Wes Anderson did not exist, would it be necessary to invent him?
2. Why did they stop making those new-wave inflected, insouciant caper comedies from the 1960's?
3. Is Mark Ruffalo a great actor, but with zero charisma?
4. When will Rachel Weisz requite my love for her?
5. Can you like something with vague literary pretentions, without being literally vaguely pretentious?

II. The Tale

The Brothers Bloom are conmen - their cons so exquisite that they do not merely dupe the rubes, but provide their victim with a deeply thematic cathartic experience. Con as performance art. Younger brother, Bloom (Adrien Brody) feels trapped by brother Stephen's (Mark Ruffalo) machinations, but is convinced to do one last job, tricking a wealthy recluse Penelope (Rachel Weisz).

III. The Acting

Rachel Weisz starts stilted, sporting a withdrawn, self-conscious demeanor (was she playing Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Royal Tennenbaum?). When her character comes out of her shell, joyful exuberance develops. From then on Rachel can do no wrong. You just want to make her happy, smile that smile with her oh-so-bright eyes. She even made me forget about that other conmen movie she was in. Sigh.

I once thought Mark Ruffalo was stuck in that charisma vacuum which is the epitome of Matthew McConaughey. A stand out in Fincher's Zodiac, I've warmed to him; here he does a great job as the flamboyant svengali. Adrien Brody, stuck with the Pinocchio dilemma, yearning to be real, wisely plays the turmoil under his passivity overshadowed by his brother. Rincho Kikuchi appears as a delightfully Harpo-esque explosives expert.  Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell are by turns eccentric and sinister Europeans.

IV. The Direction

I was impressed with Rian Johnson's debut, the high-school noir, Brick. A film which managed to make Lukas Haas seem menacing. It evoked noir through twisty plot, sleazy characters and snappy dialogue, but steered clear of pastiche.

This is a bigger challenge: A rococo concoction. juggling styles - John Irving prologue, romantic heist flicks, Mamet gamesmanship and Fellini exotica along with a breezy patina of misdirection. I found myself charmed and wowed by a series of sight gags, visual ticks, and bits of business, that liberally pepper the opening sequences. Luckily, the style calms down, leaving room for ruminations on storytelling, reflecting the conmen's ambition "to tell a story so well it becomes real".

V. A Literary Problem

In the last decade there have been a slew of films like this, that to varying degrees of implementation, success and self consciousness, use distinctly literary devices. Whether it's the chapter headings, and omniscient voice over of a Royal Tennenbaum, the annoying self pitying introspection of a Noah Baumbach or the if JD Salinger won't allow Catcher to be filmed, then someone was bound to do an Igby, not to mention those John Irving adaptations and rip offs....

Are these affectations necessary?

It’s not whether films should borrow devices from other artforms, some are just inherent to all forms of storytelling. The supposed problem with these self conscious devices is that they point out the artifice of film, alienating the viewer and detracting from the suspension of disbelief.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  True storytelling does not rely on realism, but engagement with the listener.  No neolithic people looked at a cave painting and thought "there's no way only five hunters could take down that mastodon"; Homer's audience didn't dismiss one eyed giants, sirens or gods; and Dickens plausibility is not obliterated by his cringeworthy reliance on coincidence.

Storytelling contains a contract with its audience: in exchange for your attention and the willing suspension of disbelief, a tale will be spun that actively entertains you through its combination of plot and character and engaging detail.  Foreshadowing, those inbuilt intentional spoilers exist to reward the listener by paying off details related earlier and the attention paid to them.  Titles and headings create expectations that leave suspense in how they may be met.  Narrators of many ilks and styles act as mediators between the story and the told.

Perhaps the recent trend is the result of a generation of film makers which spent their formative years when rabid academia subjected all elements of our culture to deconstructive criticism.  If their uber-Styles threaten to eclipse substance, it is only a result of weak storytelling as the melody does not suit the lyric (or when the metaphor changes genres mid thought).  When these showy affectations aren't useful to their stories, your enjoyment may be dependent on whether your taste forgives the literary flavour of these films.

The Brothers Bloom's style is in keeping with the elevated storytelling and artifice of the confidence tricksters.

VI. The Verdict

In the wake of other literary affected films, The Brothers Bloom might be secondary post-modern, but for me it pulls off its heady mixture of stylized reality, genuine fakery and smoky mirrors. Sure, it does seem to end a few extra times, but always to payoff earlier foreshadowing in a satisfying manner. If you find this contrived, like the chapter headings in this review, you may want to avoid, but even those who are irked by Wes Anderson will like The Brothers Bloom.

OK, sure, it's a con, but for all that, some of us enjoy being taken in.

[Author's Note:  I suspected that the deleted section may have been a separate essay, but in marshalling a somewhat sloppy pile of ideas from the first draft for inclusion here, I think it merits it's present form.

I balked at making a final paean to Rachel Weisz, I'll just patiently wait for her to tire of Daniel Craig.

If you're truly a glutton for punishment you may enjoy the submitted, possibly superior, version of this: Review: The Brothers Bloom: The Sum of Its Parts; or the two other pieces written for possible submission : "Mamma Mia! as directed by Michael Haneke", and "The Last Picture Show as Reviewed By A Critic With an Axe To Grind Over This Gimmick of Black and White" (these resisted trimming for length, and perhaps too bizarre in content.)]

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