Writer-director Rian Johnson fashions a universe in which time is a fluid thing — where everything takes place in a familiar today and an otherworldly yesterday, where the audience is at once agreeably comfortable and inexplicably unsettled. When his characters don't look out of place in their derbies and dusters, they sound out of place, like high school Hammetts. Johnson's creations, inhabited thus far by soulful actors giving career-best performances, always appear as if they've materialized between eras, as if they're caught between two worlds — the yellowing then and the Technicolor now.
Johnson's movies — first Brick in 2006, now The Brothers Bloom — are clever and soulful confabulations. The filmmaker, whose screenplays read like novels, serves up movies that could play like would-be parodies: Brick, after all, was his gumshoe-in-tennis-shoes noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a slang-spouting baby Bogart on the hunt for his lady friend's killer. Could have played like a joke; it was anything but. Now comes The Brothers Bloom, a love story — two, actually — that flirts with the con-man movie clichés with which Johnson ultimately can't be bothered. Which is just as well.
In a confidence film, all the characters are exactly who they say they are, even when they insist they're not who you think they are, or something — a-ha! Johnson dispenses with that phony device up-front: He doesn't have an endgame gotcha up his sleeve and isn't interested in making a puzzle to be solved. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are, from first scene to last shot, precisely who we think they are: lonely little fabulists who tell stories to find the joy that eludes them in "the real world." Cons provide an escape.
Stephen and Bloom (no last names, please) are kids when we first meet them — young lost lads rejected by 38 sets of foster parents. Johnson introduces them through a surrealist's interpretation of a Dickensian tale: They are orphans scamming for Bomb Pops in a dead-end town where the one-legged cat, stuffed in an old leather roller skate, uses a crutch to push himself down Main Street. Stephen is the cynic about to blossom into a full-fledged misanthrope; Bloom is the romantic who will mature into a hangdog lonely heart. Which is why Stephen's schemes all serve the same purpose: to bring joy to Bloom's empty life, to allow him to be as he wasn't so he can be as he wishes to be, as narrator Ricky Jay (shades of Magnolia!) announces.
When they're boys, Stephen spins his profitable fictions to get girls for his brother; as adults, he does it to land Bloom the love of his life in the form of Penelope (Rachel Weisz), the Jersey heiress so wealthy and bored that she collects hobbies — among them ping-pong, rapping, playing the banjo, breakdancing, and juggling chainsaws while astride a towering unicycle. Clearly, Penelope is in need of an adventure, no matter how it arrives — by hook or by crook, just someone to free her from the confines of a dreary manse overstuffed with dusty tchotchkes.
There is a con somewhere in the movie, definitely — something to do with a rare book ensconced in catacombs in Prague, involving men named the Curator (Robbie Coltrane) and Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell, as the brothers' Fagin). As comic relief, there's Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang, a neon-clad Harpo Marx branding all manner of destructive gadgets from who-knows-where. And there are far-flung locales, where bright sunlight reflects off whitecaps and mountaintops. (The Brothers Bloom is beautiful to look at — old-fashioned escapism, a trip around the world for the cost of a movie ticket.) But it's best not to fuss over the con's sketchy details, which serve only to distract from the real story: Bloom's attempts to find joy in life without the con.
Some will dismiss Johnson's second film as just that — a self-conscious sophomore effort filled with literary references, as he works to disentangle himself from constricting plot strands. But he has infused The Brothers Bloom with so much heart and beauty that you can and should easily overlook its discomfiting moments. Truth is, the film is even more profound and touching upon second viewing, once you've dispensed with the genre affectations and gotten in touch with the filmmaker's affection for his characters. Maybe that's the film's best con: It steals your heart.