If Wes Anderson directed a remake of “The Sting,” it might come off something like “The Brothers Bloom,” the second picture from Rian Johnson. It’s about two con-men siblings, the younger of whom wants out, who undertake one “final” sting—against a loopy young heiress. But though the script is filled with twists and feints designed to surprise, it’s notable mostly for its ultra-cutesy style, which smothers the convoluted tale in visual and verbal affectation so heavy that you almost choke on it. As befits a picture initially narrated by Ricky Jay, watching it is like sitting through an elaborate magic trick with lots of empty pizzazz and very little payoff.
In that it resembles Johnson’s first movie, “Brick,” which told the story of a high-school shamus investigating his ex-girlfriend’s death as a teenage film noir marked by hardboiled dialogue that’s ludicrously—though amusingly—over-the-top. But “Brick” worked to some extent as a stunt; “Bloom” doesn’t. Its archness quickly becomes tiresome, and yet it drags on interminably, trying desperately to take flight but remaining resolutely earthbound.
A sophomorically clever prologue—in doggerel, yet!—introduces the brothers as a couple of orphan kids bounced from foster home to foster home when they consistently dupe their hosts and the locals. Older Stephen (Max Records) is the planner who writes the elaborate plots for their cons, while the younger brother, called only Bloom (Zachary Gordon), is the chief actor in them. Twenty-five years later they’ve grown into Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, respectively, pulling off a job that the sad-faced Bloom, declaring he’s tired of the life, declares his finale. After initially giving in, Stephen tracks him down in Montenegro to ask him to help in one last gig targeting Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a pretty but odd heiress whose hobby is—ha! ha!—collecting hobbies. Before long she’s hooked, but on a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean Bloom and she fall for each other.
From this point the plot takes on more and more wrinkles—involving a scheme to heist a rare book—and characters (Rinko Kikuchi as the brothers’ near-mute associate Bang Bang, Robbie Coltrane as a Belgian called Melville, Maximilian Schell as the boys’ old mentor, now nemesis Diamond Dog). But the narrative razzmatazz is all so much sleight of hand; it’s clear that what it’s all about is Stephen acting in his usual capacity as puppetmaster, but this time in order to bring some lasting happiness to Bloom’s life, even at cost to himself. Brotherly love, you know.
“The Brothers Bloom” wants to be about artifice, but what it’s really about is sheer artificiality. Nothing in it has the slightest glimmer of genuineness—not the candy-colored look fashioned by production designer Jim Clay, art director Paul Kirby, set decorator Sophie Newman and costumer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, whose eye-popping creations are captured in creamy widecreen images by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, nor the performances, which are made up mostly of empty poses. Brody’s doe-eyed turn is pathetic enough, but Weisz’s failed attempt at a screwball heroine is deadening, and Ruffalo simply seems lost at sea, never remotely capturing the clever rascal Stephen is supposed to me. Coltrane gets by with a flippant reading of Johnson’s glib lines, but Schell goes for broke with unhappy results.
As in “Brick,” the director shows a keen eye for what’s visually impressive, but here, even more than in that film, he seems totally concerned with surface effect and oblivious to anything that lies beneath it. Despite a last-act turn that aims at the heartstrings, it’s impossible to care about anything in “The Brothers Bloom”—either the labyrinthine but silly plot or the cardboard characters. You leave feeling as though you’ve just been force-fed a tub of cotton candy, queasy and unsatisfied. And you know you’ve been had.