The Brothers Bloom

Starring Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rachel Weisz

Directed by Rian Johnson

Rated PG-13

I guess it’s true that all movies about attractive criminals appeal to the audience’s desire to see what it’s like to live a more dangerous life, even if that desire endures only for the length of the film. But no movie features criminals who so ache for a different, more conventional, life than The Brothers Bloom.

And that invests this deliciously clever, convention-busting flick with more soul than you’d expect, because it’s not just a puzzle with a plot – as most movies about con artists typically are. It’s a puzzle about personality and potential and perspective and people.

The brothers Bloom – Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the elder, and the younger is called simply Bloom (Adrien Brody) – have been pulling cons since they were in grade school. But they’re not about getting rich … or at least, not only about getting rich. Their cons are opulent narratives woven with such great care that those who they’re conning never realize they’ve been conned, and indeed end their association with the brothers believing they’ve had the adventure of their lives. Their idea of the perfect con is to tell a story so well that it becomes real. And they’ve been very successful at it.

But it’s become routine for Bloom: it’s no longer unconventional, just tiring, and he wants to quit. So Stephen, the mastermind of their cons, promises that this next one will be the last one, and they’ll go out in style.

Like every other one-last-con movie we’ve ever seen, you cannot help but go into it expecting that you, the viewer, are going to be conned, too, that red-herring wool will be pulled over your eyes and you’ll have been tricked in the best way by the end. But there’s a wicked cinematic beauty to The Brothers Bloom: like the brothers’ cons themselves, you may well never suspect that you’ve been conned.

Writer-director Rian Johnson weaves a story not of a specific time nor a place, and the narrative follows no rules but its own. We never know if we’re watching a Wes Anderson-esque grown-up Looney Tune or a Coen Brothers spike-edged dramedy or a David Mamet swindle-without-the-smug. And we don’t need to choose, because it’s all those things at once. It’s a sweetly self-aware romance and an enormous send-up of con movies all at the same time.

The last recipient of their escapade-giving largesse is a fabulously wealthy and fabulously bored heiress Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). She’s magnificently preposterous, an amiably innocent cartoon, a polymath of hobbies who invents stuff to do for herself. She jumps at the “chance” to steam off to Europe with the brothers on a quest for an impossibly valuable old book. Penelope is even more intrigued when she “accidentally” discovers that the brothers are not the antiquarians they presented themselves; instead, she learns, the pair are “in fact” smugglers of rare and beautiful things.

Penelope is so unbelievable that Bloom says to Stephen, “She feels like one of your characters.” He’s suspicious, perhaps, that something more is up with this con, but we’re way ahead of him: we’ve been suspicious for quite a while that Stephen has invented Penelope, or at least chosen her very specifically, and concocted this one-last-con so that his brother will fall in love with her and go off into the sunset happily, instead of in misery over abandoning Stephen. And the moment Stephen warns Bloom, “Don’t fall in love with her,” we know that must be Stephen’s intention with the whole deal. Don’t we?

Oh, gosh, I can’t tell you any more. I haven’t spoiled anything yet, and in fact The Brothers Bloom may be almost impossible to spoil – well, I could tell you too much about the brothers’ assistant and munitions expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), but that would be mean of me – because even after you know how events (apparently) play out, you won’t be sure how they played out at all. Penelope marvels at one point that “a photograph is like a secret about a secret – the more it tells you, the less you know.” And that’s true of Bloom as well.

Rian Johnson wowed us a few years back with his high-school noir Brick, but if that impressive debut was a little wave hello, The Brothers Bloom is a punch to the arm. Johnson is a major new talent, and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.