Monday, May 25, 2009

Eat Your Waffles, Fat Man

To cut to the chase, I’ll just say now that The Brothers Bloom made good on my months and months of expectations. I’ve been following production of Rian Johnson’s follow-up to Brick since quite literally the day after I saw Brick and I can happily report that Johnson did not suffer a sophomore slump. I’m actually writing a review for paper later today, but I’m first posting here some odds and ends that most likely will not make the final cut for the in-print article, even though they may well prove to be more interesting than the review itself.


I’d advise you to avoid the text that follows if you haven’t yet seen The Brothers Bloom — and you should seeThe Brothers Bloom — because my tidbits give some major plot points away. I’ve only seen the film once, and since I feel like this might be one of those that improves upon multiple viewings, it may well turn out that some of what I’m laying down in the following points is actually rubbish. However, what follows at least what’s bouncing around in my head.

Foremost, I left the theater unclear as to whether Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is a real girl or if she is actually a “character” in some massive con constructed by Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) in hopes of ensuring his brother, Bloom (Adrien Brody), the happy ending that he claims such a production should provide. In the end, I don’t think Penelope is a fake — and I don’t want to think that she’s a fake — but I wouldn’t put it past Johnson to have written the character so that she appears to be this way. I’ve never read whether he did so intentionally, but I know quite a few people watched Brick and left thinking that the character The Brain could have actually been a figment of the main character’s imagination or possibly a manifestation of his deductive mind whose seeming physical presence gave the protagonist a means of working out the film’s mystery without doing so completely inside his own head. The theory about The Brain, or at least how it’s explained to me, doesn’t hold much water and is probably more a result of directorial design. Similarly, neither do any Penelope-as-plant theories, but they’re still interesting to consider.

My evidence for Penelope possibly being less-than-genuine include the following:
  • At one point, Bloom describes Penelope as reminding him of a character Stephen would have written. While the film never focused on the myriad incidental characters Stephen famously writes into his cons, Penelope would seem to neatly fit in: Her being a recluse conveniently precludes her having any associates outside of what is offered in the span of the film’s central caper. And the one thing tying her to a life outside her experience with Bloom and Stephen — her mansion in New Jersey — is conveniently exploded into nonexistence two-thirds of the way through the film. It’s all very neat, but then again, these very reasons make her an ideal mark.
  • The audience never finds out how Penelope talked the Czech police into not arresting her in Prague. Bloom mentions this, and Stephen curiously suggests that it’s more satisfying not knowing. This bit comes off as a joke, but it’s nonetheless suspicious.
  • The end of the film makes a point of showing off Stephen’s blood on Bloom’s shirt. As it’s pointed out earlier in the film, real blood turns brown in about thirty minutes; costume blood stays bright red. When Penelope initially looks at Bloom’s shirt, the blood is red. Later, after Bloom has fallen asleep and then awakened, the blood is brown, which would seem to indicate that Stephen truly did die. However, the way this information is presented allows for the argument that this too is staged — specifically by Penelope while Bloom was unconscious. This line of thought falls apart upon close inspection — how, exactly, would she have switched a shirt Bloom was wearing or somehow turned the fake blood brown? — but the ambiguity is there, if only for a fleeting moment.
Despite these points in favor of Penelope having been created and constructed by Stephen, there’s significant arguments against this being the case. Most obviously, Stephen really seems to be dead at the end of the film. The car bomb that supposedly killed Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi)? Probably not what it seems. No body. Stephen? Pretty damn dead. Also, when Penelope sneaks into the castle in Prague, she’s out of Bloom’s sight but still acts like a scared-shitless innocent — not a plant who had been coached to perform a role.

The film maps certain tropes of drama onto those of the confidence game — and with good reason. Just as Stephen claims that a good con gives everyone what they want in the end, so too does a good play or movie. In many ways, Stephen’s cons work more like elaborate performance art or interactive theater than what typical con men do. Bloom himself notes that Stephen constructs cons “like Russians write novels,” or something to that effect. In this sense, Stephen is actor and director — and isn’t it a stereotype that every actor ultimately wants to direct? It’s particularly fitting that the film’s second-to-last major scene takes place in a run-down theater. It’s the end for Stephen, nearly the end of the movie and probably the last drama to unfold in that particular playhouse, which looks like it’s going to fall over at any moment. The fact that Stephen literally dies on stage would seem like good evidence for anyone trying to prove that this big kill is fake, but I don’t think this is the case. I’m pretty sure Johnson wanted us to think of Stephen as very much so dunzo, with the fact that his final moments occur in a theater being symbolic and not a hint about something secretive.

The names of the title characters are assigned rather strangely. Whereas the elder Bloom Brother gets a regular first name, the younger one is only addressed as Bloom. Unless his name is Bloom Bloom — which wouldn’t be inappropriate, given the handful of ways the film reminded me of Pushing Daisies — his first name is simply never uttered and not listed in the credits. It’s not unheard of that this would be the case. (For example, the “I” in Withnail and I is never named in the film.) But if Bloom is actually Adrien Brody’s character’s first name, then this film’s brother-brother pair would be the only one besides the Mario Bros. to have a first name arbitrarily applied to both in the way a last name usually would. An online contest was apparently held to give the younger Bloom a first name — or at least so says this article, which, curiously, was written by someone named Dan Bloom — but there’s no indication of what the results of that contest were.

Speaking of names, the pairing of the names Bloom and Penelope made me think of the marrieds in Joyce’s Ulysses, even if the female half of that pair is actually named Molly. The book’s final chapter — Molly’s chapter, arguably — is titled “Penelope.”

An alternate name Stephen makes up for Bang Bang is something like Yen-Ling or Yeng-Ling or maybe even Yuengling. If it’s the third, it would be a name shared by the popular East Coast beer brand. Penelope herself event points this similarity out. Nothing too notable here — just me feeling validated because I’ve always thought Yuengling sounded like a Chinese name. It’s not, but then again Bang Bang isn’t Chinese either.

Bloom guesses that Bang Bang only knows three words of English, if I remember correctly. That’s also how many she speaks in the entire movie: She says “Campari” when ordering a drink and “Fuck me” when she realizes her role in a particular scheme will not turn out how she planned it to. Sure, she sings in English later at a Tokyo karaoke bar, but she was reading from words on the screen then.

Also, unless I’m mistaken, Rinko Kikuchi’s roles in English movies so far consist of her playing a deaf girl in Babel and now playing what is essentially a mute in The Brothers Bloom.

I’m not sure what to make of Bang Bang’s use of Barbie dolls — or, perhaps more accurately, Barbie-like dolls — as shells for blasting matter. One could argue that despite the fact that she exists in a noirish world, she’s literally exploding female stereotypes. For one, she’s an explosive expert, for one. For another, she mostly communicates physically, yet doesn’t use her sexuality as a weapon or tool. That a woman named Bang Bang would function fairly independently of her gender seems pretty damn notable..

Considering the film’s noirish leanings, it actually seems rather strange that it contains no real femme fatales. Brick contained three, depending on how you look at them: Meagan Good and Emilie de Ravin’s characters both exhibit some femme fatale-like qualities, and then there’s Nora Zehetner’s character, a true femme fatale and also the fim’s big bad. It seems especially appropriate, then, that Zehetner would appear in the opening few minutes of The Brothers Bloom as a woman who tries to seduce Bloom and is coldly rejected by him, never to be seen again.

Johnson has noted that the anime series Cowboy Bebop was an aesthetic influence on Brick. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character bears a strong physical similarity to Bebop’s main guy, Spike Spiegel. I’d argue that Cowboy Bebop is a palpable influence on The Brothers Bloom too, what with the capering and the four-person schemes. But I’d also suggest ’70s anime series Lupin III as well — in part because Spiegel and Lupin share a number of physical similarities and in part because The Brothers Bloom’s madcap crime schemes seem more like those that would be attempted by Lupin’s four-person team. And as does any good anime, The Brothers Bloom includes a ballad — even if it’s sung at a karaoke bar instead of over the end credits.

On the subject of the lack of supporting players in the film’s central con, it seems especially notable that the film has such a small cast — there’s only really seven characters to speak of — when, again, Stephen is known for such massive productions that the one that ends at beginning of the film has a cast party.

Considering how much I’ve written that can’t fit into the 250 words I have to fit my review, I can only assume that the final product will be an abysmal failure. It should be clear, however, that I thoroughly liked the movie, to the point that I wouldn’t even feel that it would be cheap to spin a sequel out of it — Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, maybe, with Brody and Weisz playing a latter-day, larceny-bent Nick and Nora Charles. Of course, maybe that’s actually a terrible idea. And maybe that’s one more thing I won’t mention in the pending review.

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