The Brothers Bloom
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 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 nineties 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 (Adrien Brody) longs for a real life. Brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) 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 thirties. 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.
And so 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 be a great film, but it is a deeply memorable good one.
I’ve been an Amy Adams skeptic. I’ve felt she has been overpraised for playing the same virginal character in most of her outings. She’s always been fine, but more than any other actress I’ve needed to see a film in which fire shot out of her ass. Her trademark cheer doesn’t disappear in Sunshine Cleaning. But at least the film gives her room to introduce a dose of bitterness as well as her considerable sexuality. And perhaps we finally see a single puff of smoke rising out of her – mmmm, I’ll go with “admirable” – backside.
In Sunshine Cleaning, she plays an all-grown high school cheerleader stuck in the past. Working for a housecleaning company, raising a child alone and having an affair with her now-married high school boyfriend, she starts a crime-scene cleanup company with her screw-up sister, played by Emily Blunt. Unlike Adams, I have never had a doubt about Blunt as an actress. The only thing that she can’t do is convince me that she sprang from the same womb as Adams.
Writing newcomer Megan Holley’s script displays likable subtlety and exceptional character development. For two thirds, the film finds its niche between indie comedy and working-class drama. Unfortunately, Holley and director Christine Jeffs eventually lose faith in the things that have been working. A manageable couple of clichés grows to five or six as the film unnecessarily scrapes for third-act drama.
Jeffs film is a study of optimism enduring in the face of hardship. In that way, it bears resemblance to Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Whereas Leigh’s film feels like a halting experiment in happiness by a committed miserablist, Jeffs film touches it with considerable sincerity, due in large part to the talent of its two leads. What Happy-Go-Lucky contemplates Sunshine Cleaning feels in its bones.
And in so doing, Jeffs discovers something about Adams that I fear we will never see again – that she has it in her to do what Monica Vitti has done forMichelangelo Antonioni, to be the humane redeemer of damaged worlds. Yet this film was conceived prior to Adams’ recent rise to mainstream stardom. Will Hollywood allow her to explore this angle, or will it stick her further and further in an emotional nunnery? I’m not optimistic.
Beyond noting that Alan Arkin apparently must star in all films set in Albuquerque that have the word Sunshine in the title, that’s all I have to say.
The Girlfriend Experience
Times are definitely getting harder. The second in producer Mark Cuban and director Stephen Soderbergh’s series of cheapies takes place among masters of the universe suddenly looking for bargains in everything but sex. Judging by this romp through the life of Sasha Gray’s high-end call girl, money doesn’t buy as much as it once did. Such as capable actors. Or tightly told stories. Or fantasy girls with womanly breasts.
The Girlfriend Experience is a luminously shot satire about how we commodify sexuality. A fine enough theme, but the film goes in circles. I wonder if “video star” Sasha Grey’s flat performance was an arty choice on Soderbergh’s part. Even if so, it doesn’t work. It simply makes a barely interesting story less watchable. While Soderbergh has told stories non-linearly before, even non-linear stories must have a linear concept organizing the story. This one does not. It’s a scrambled egg.