One of the best cons for The Brothers Bloom is the one they didn’t play in the credits. If they had just swept the name “Wes Anderson” into the director’s spot, it would take a panel of world experts to declare it a fake. As it is, that spot is filled with the name Rian Johnson (Brick), who has watched plenty of Rushmore and, especially, Royal Tenenbaums. I must say, Anderson as an elder statesman and influence makes one critic feel a little old.
At his best, Anderson is a collector of other people’s stories that he then makes his quirky own. The criminal wannabes of Bottle Rocket resemble the rebels for an afternoon of Godard’s Bande a Part, refracted through a ’90s indie sensibility. The Brothers Bloom is a similar operation. Many reviews have called it a con film like The Sting, which is obviously true. What’s being missed is that it is also an anachronistic tribute to the screwball romance. The premise is plucked and the genders reversed from The Lady Eve, the classic con-woman-in-love trope from Preston Sturges, that Anderson hero.
The Brothers Bloom are legendary con-men nearing the end of their rope. Having served since childhood as the vulnerable hero of his brother’s con-game stories, younger brother Bloom longs for a real life. Brother Stephen is the crafty creator of each sparkling illusion. He believes in two things: First, that in a good con, everybody gets what they want in the end. Second, the perfect con would be to tell a lie that’s so real it becomes the truth. As a final target, Johnson yanks a zany heiress out of the ’30s. Penelope Stamp leads an eccentric life in a New Jersey mansion of castle proportions, where she plays the harp on the front lawn and wrecks and replaces Italian sports cars. As a hobby, she collects other people’s hobbies, learning card tricks and chainsaw juggling, and playing DJ to empty rooms in her home. If she were played by Katharine Hepburn rather than the peerless Rachel Weisz, no one would blink.
As she joins the Blooms on a cruise ship and they take her deeper into a phony smuggling ring, she rises to it with guileless delight. Bloom may want out of the scripted life, but Penelope relishes the drama, leaving bored seclusion for an exuberant adventure. As she finishes one tricky mission, Penelope spazzes out with such girlish playground giddiness that it becomes one of the best film moments of this year. But the beauty of the film is how, in a cynical tale of money and deception, the strongest force turns out to be Penelope’s innocence and decency.
The romance that develops between Penelope and Bloom is unusually touching: They are two emotionally stunted loners approaching middle age, whose lives have never allowed them to fulfill love. Hence, they move childishly through the experiences like young teens wrapped in bodies beyond their years. It is not a love story that begs for true belief. It is happy to exist on its own affected terms, without feeling forced or hollow.
So far, this review doesn’t fully capture the loopiness of The Brothers Bloom. Oversized binoculars. Steamships to the Continent. Crazy classic fashions. A silent demolition expert who only speaks when singing karaoke. The wackiness is carried forward nicely by a gifted cast. Writing “Rachel Weisz is the best thing in the film” is a film critic’s habit that should never get old. The Brothers Bloom might not, strictly speaking, be a truly great film, but it is a deeply memorable, deeply enjoyabe good one.
'The Brothers Bloom' is in theaters now from Summit Entertainment.