‘The Brothers Bloom’: A perfect post-‘Poker Face’ winter watch

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It would be absolutely bonkers that The Brothers Bloom was only Rian Johnson’s second movie, given its award-winning stars, globe-trotting locales, gorgeous costumes, and cleverly literary script — if only he hadn’t already smacked our gobs wide open with Brick and its fast-talking neo-noir teens a few years before. And now, here we are! Rian Johnson is an Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay for Glass Onion; he was also nominated for his Knives Out script. He’s directed a Star War. Hell, he’s got his very own Netflix franchise(Opens in a new window), not to mention his brand-new Peacock series with Natasha Lyonne, Poker Face

While Bloom had its fair share of detractors at the time of its release, I was never one of them, and revisiting it recently proved this little gem has stood the test of time. If you’ve already doubled down on Poker Face and are longing for more Johnson — not to mention a romantic leading man performance by Poker Face‘s Adrien Brody — you absolutely must see its wobbly-but-wonderful origins.

Who are the Brothers Bloom, and what’s their deal?

Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody co-star as con men Stephen and Bloom, aka The Brothers Bloom, all grown up. As Stephen, Ruffalo is a brilliant strategist who creates elaborate ruses in order for Bloom (a doe-eyed Brody, never better) to get the girl, among other treasures. (It’s never made clear to us, or to anyone but perhaps Johnson himself, why Bloom is just Bloom(Opens in a new window) or even Bloom Bloom(Opens in a new window), though the characters’ names are an allusion to Joyce’s Ulysses.) They speak of cackle-bladder and brush-offs, the sort of half made-up slang and half delightfully obscure lingo that closed captions were made for.

Do not fall in love with this woman. (Good luck.)
Credit: Moviestore / Shutterstock

Rinko Kikuchi is their silent, ever-stylish colleague Bang Bang, an explosives expert with a taste for nitroglycerin. And last but never least, Rachel Weisz plays Penelope, a brilliant heiress with a taste for chaos whom the brothers think will be their last mark ever. Instead, this lonely, gorgeous autodidact — she skateboards, makes pinhole cameras, does origami and elaborate card tricks, plays the harp, etc. etc. — decides it’s high time to live on the edge and join the brothers as a consummate con woman herself.

Stephen has promised Bloom that this is their Last Ever Heist, No, Really, and that if Bloom falls in love with their mark (as he always does, though these acts of confabulated love have begun to wear on his soul), the jig will be up. Bloom absolutely should NOT fall in love with their mark this time! Of course, with any tricksy caper like this, nothing is as it seems. It can be confusing to figure out who is scamming who until suddenly we’re all in Romania, and Penelope has blown up part of a museum, stolen a rare book, and talked her way out of arrest. Of course, Bloom is in love.

Why is The Brothers Bloom a must-see?

Actor and sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay serves as our narrator for the first little chunk of film, where we get a glimpse of two little kids in fedoras and white button-down shirts who have learned the hard way they can only count on each other. They spend recesses spinning yarns and swindling the other kiddos out of their precious dollars for a glimpse of something magical; their ruse starts as a way for a young boy called Bloom to win the attention of his crush, and their payout is in Pixy Stix. It’s a magical, melancholy introduction to the brothers, and more importantly, to the world Johnson has created out of whole cloth.

I became slightly obsessed with The Brothers Bloom when I first saw it ahead of the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, and after the film bounced around different release dates, I literally dreamt I went to see it again and was handed a copy of the film on a CD-ROM by a publicist. At the time, I naively wondered(Opens in a new window) if the film was being positioned for an Oscar run, so in love with the movie I was (and so bad as prognostication I remain!), rather than it being a case of confusion and mismanagement by a relatively small distributor (Summit Entertainment) that suddenly had Twilight on its hands. (Someone needs to write the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about Summit and Twilight changing the way studios and fans interact forever, but that someone is not me.)

The Brothers Bloom and Bang Bang are incredibly stylish.
Credit: Endgame Entertainment / Kobal / Shutterstock

Now, with the knowledge of Johnson’s large-scale success in terms of both box office and awards from his peers, it’s delightful to view the movie as a sort of embryonic version of his current Agatha Christie spree — heady with allusions to other works of art and media (everything from Diane Arbus to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), tricksy with language and plot, juicy with opportunities for known actors to try something new, and replete with details, from Penelope’s Mid-Atlantic accent to Bang Bang’s dangling cigarette ash.

The Brothers Bloom is full of love for art and storytelling and the characters Johnson has created, who are full of fierce surprises when they could be flat. Plus, the cast is jam-packed full of legendary actors and Johnson regulars alike — of course Noah Segan, Lukas Haas, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt appear in a party scene, but we also get Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell as fellow con men.

Look, January is bleak. February is worse. The nights are getting shorter, but we’re a few months away from sunshine. Once you’re done watching Poker Face and reveling in Natasha Lyonne’s sexiest Columbo impression (and I mean that with the utmost reverence), hit up The Brothers Bloom for a sweet little slice of early Rian Johnson charisma.

How to watch: The Brothers Bloom is available to rent/purchase on Amazon Prime(Opens in a new window), Apple TV(Opens in a new window), Vudu(Opens in a new window), Cinemax(Opens in a new window), and other digital platforms.


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