'The Brothers Bloom': Liars In Love, By Kurt Loder

Rachel Weisz heads a mad cast in a surreal new comedy.

[movie id="325663"]"The Brothers Bloom"[/movie] is set on a planet somewhat like our own, but far wackier. The Bloom brothers of the title — Stephen ([movieperson id="165440"]Mark Ruffalo[/movieperson]) and, well, Bloom ([movieperson id="7708"]Adrien Brody[/movieperson]) — have been gifted swindlers since they were kids. (They appear to have been born wearing shifty little black suits and ties.) Stephen is the brains of the team — he composes their elaborate schemes as if they were short stories, each one a chapter in an ongoing, lifelong compendium of cons. His younger brother Bloom is always the protagonist. As we join them in the middle of their latest scam, in Berlin, Bloom is chafing under the dictates of his brother's never-ending narrative. "I've only lived life through these roles that aren't me," he complains. He wants to break free, to live "an unwritten life." Not quite yet, Stephen says.

The boys relocate to New Jersey to case a new job. They're accompanied by their assistant, a mysterious young Japanese woman called Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, the troubled teen in "Babel"). Bang Bang's face is a mask of deadpan disgruntlement — she seems to have been waiting all her life for a punch line that's never arrived. She only speaks three words of English; one of them is "Campari." Still, she's "an artist with nitroglycerin," and thus handy to have around.

The Blooms' next mark is Penelope ([movieperson id="183270"]Rachel Weisz[/movieperson]), a rich, lonely nutjob who lives on her own in a vast mansion. Penelope has a variety of unusual talents. She can play every musical instrument. She can build model boats inside of bottles. She can juggle chainsaws on stilts. She's also created a pinhole camera out of a watermelon, and she calls herself an "epileptic photographer." She really shouldn't drive, but that doesn't stop her. She's the Blooms' kind of gal.

The movie is wonderfully weird. It has one foot planted in the real world (well, a real world — the Balkan locations in which the picture was shot give it a tangy unfamiliarity) and the other foot waggling out over the edge of a cliff. Cons sprout up within cons. Bloom is supposed to pretend to fall in love with Penelope so she can be fleeced of her money. But Penelope has so much money, she can afford to be fleeced — she doesn't care. In fact, she finds the con the Blooms are trying to run on her so exciting, she wants to join them and become a con artist herself. At this point, Bloom actually does fall in love with her, which screws everything up. Or does it?

On a boat to Greece, they encounter an outsized Frenchman named Melville (Robbie Coltrane). Under a stirringly artificial starry-night sky, he whispers to Penelope of Bloomian deceit. But then he turns out to be part of a con, too — one involving smuggled antiques and a shadowy character called the Argentine. Soon they all end up in Prague, where they make the unwanted reacquaintance of an old colleague, the one-eyed Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell). The attempted con blows up in their faces. The lovesick Bloom retreats to an island aerie in Montenegro. Penelope returns to New Jersey. But not for long.

Rachel Weisz gives what may be her freest and funniest performance in this movie. Her Penelope is a ditz with a plan — a formidable combination. Kikuchi, too, is a revelation — she wields her character's bottomless disdain like a just-unclassified comic weapon. Ruffalo's generous restraint allows these two to shine, but he also puts an expert spin on every off-kilter line that comes Stephen's way. (Recalling a woman he once loved: "pale skin, long feet ..."). And while Brody's slumpy borzoi charm isn't to everyone's taste, he's right for Bloom, a guy so frazzled by unending deceit that he can never be sure he's not conning himself.

The picture is a small triumph for Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed it. Johnson's first film, the hardboiled high-school noir "Brick," delivered more promise than payoff. Here, working in a form of low-budget, high-style surrealism that may be all his own, he pulls off a neat trick. Along with all the dizzying non sequiturs and near-subliminal sight gags, he's given the movie a real heart; and at the story's peak, we see the four main characters for what they really are — a family. It's the greatest con of all.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Angels & Demons," also new in theaters this week.

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year's ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It's up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

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