Review Date: 5-31-09
Release Date: 5-15-09 (limited)
Runtime: 113 min.
Costume Designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
I heard some early buzz about this film after the Toronto Film Festival last fall, but didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I entered the theater. It’s kind of a standard con/caper movie, but the story is told in a manner that is visually and stylistically quite refreshing. The costumes are ridiculously beautiful, and I hope the film gets a wider release so that everyone can appreciate it. This might be the longest, most detailed review ever, but man it is totally worth it. At least, I think so.
The film opened with some interesting trailers: Séraphine, 500 Days of Summer, The Hurt Locker, and Tetro – all films I’d like to see, but all rather smallish, artier-housier films. With the cast in The Brothers Bloom (Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell) I would have predicted a wide release, not an art-house, limited-release scenario. These are all bankable, very popular actors (Oscar-winning: Weisz, Brody, and Schell; nominated: Kikuchi), and could draw huge crowds. I guess I must not understand the marketing of movies very well. Really, I mustn’t. There are just too many good films out there that are flushed down the distribution toilet (and too many big fat stinkers in 3,500 screen releases). I sincerely hope The Brothers Bloom does not become one of the toilet casualties. It’s a careful, thoughtful film, and I really enjoyed it.
The movie starts out with an energetically told brief history and background on the brothers Bloom. In short shots that tell the story visually (with a heavy nod toward Wes Anderson), we come to understand that the two young brothers were shuffled from foster home to foster home, always getting kicked out for some kind of bad behavior. In their last home, the elder brother, Stephen, comes up with a fifteen-step con to take/make money from the neighborhood kids.
The con involves Bloom (the younger brother) cozying up to the freckle-faced girl with curly hair in the neighborhood. Gaining her confidence, and the rest of the neighborhood kids’ confidence, Bloom tells them of the legend of the Cave of Wonder, which they can see for the price of $2 each. They pony up, and Bloom leads them to the cave, all the kids dressed in their Sunday best. Stephen has watered down the interior of the cave to make mud. When the kids enter the cave, they slip and slide and end up covered in mud. The parents of these kids are not amused; they show up to the brothers’ home in an angry mob. The boys are kicked out of their foster home. We then see Stephen cutting the local drycleaner in on the deal. Pretty industrious for a ten-year-old.
Cut to: Berlin, twenty-five years later. It’s a deal gone bad. Bloom (Adrien Brody) has just been shot in the chest (by a guy we later realize is their “mark”) and the building where he stands is up in flames. The mark quickly exits, and Bloom appears lifeless. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) shows up and helps Bloom to his feet, revealing the squib packs and fake blood – it was just an act, just a part of the con. From the back, explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) appears, holding a smoking blowtorch.
Later that night, the brothers are at a nightclub. As they enter, Bloom’s bright-red blood is still evident on his white shirt – it hasn’t turned brown, like real blood would. Evidence of their con. A pretty girl offers herself to Bloom, who sulks, playing cards by himself. He refuses her, indicating that he’s just a character written by Stephen, not really real, just a part of the con, meant to draw her in. Later that night, or more specifically early the next morning, the brothers wander through the Berlin zoo, and Bloom tells Stephen that he wants out. Bloom wants something real: an unwritten life. Stephen lets him go.
Three months later, in Montenegro, Stephen finds Bloom and lures him in for one last con. A big one. Stephen, Bang Bang, and Bloom find themselves in front of a huge mansion on a sprawling estate in New Jersey. They are discussing their plan when suddenly a yellow Lamborghini careens toward the mansion and crashes into a wall. Emerging from the car is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), bewildered.
Later, Stephen explains the con to Bloom. As they discuss the details, Stephen catches and kills a buzzing fly with his bare hand. We understand that this con is going to be similar to the kids at the Cave of Wonder con from their youth. Bloom will force Penelope to crash into him with her car. She will then be greatly troubled, befriend him and give him lots of money… Or so it seems. But nothing is ever that simple.
Bloom, Bang Bang and Stephen position themselves at the top of a knoll on the estate property. Riding a banana-seat bicycle, Bloom careens down the hill, crashing into Penelope’s Lamborghini. Panicked and distraught, Penelope attempts to flee the scene, but can’t get the car in gear. She finally engages the gear and promptly drives off a cliff. Bloom, not terribly wounded, runs after her.
At the hospital, we see that all three are waiting to see how she’s survived her injuries. Bloom ends up driving her back to the estate in his 1978 Cadillac, and they end up talking. He lures her in, telling her that he and his brother are antique dealers, and she is soon taking the bait. We find out that she is fairly well socially handicapped. That she “collects hobbies”, including playing piano, accordion, banjo, classical guitar, skateboarding, ping-pong, juggling, unicycling, origami, and DJ-ing. She then shows Bloom the pinhole camera she made out of a watermelon. This is a woman of much skill and no purpose.
Penelope and Bloom seem to be truly connecting, as they walk the grounds of the estate. He tells her that he and his brother are leaving by boat on a business trip – dropping it like a baited line for a starving fish – the implication being that she can come along if she’s interested.
The next morning at the docks, Bloom shows up solo, explaining to his brother that he didn’t think Penelope would take the bait. Suddenly, up pulls the yellow Lamborghini. Penelope emerges, and pulls a suitcase from the trunk. She’s in.
This is no fish-trawling boat either, no Orca from Jaws. No, this is a sophisticated ocean liner, all cherry wood, teak and brass, waiters in white tuxedos. Penelope and Bloom have dinner together and she shuffles a deck of cards as she talks with him. She performs amazing card tricks without pointing them out or calling attention to them, but Bloom sees this, and it is clear that he has met a formidable match. After dinner they stroll to the deck of the boat. Bloom excuses himself to talk with the band, and from the shadows emerges a big man in a long coat (The Curator, played by Robbie Coltrane). He approaches, smoking a pipe, and in horrifically Anglicized French, tells Penelope to beware of the brothers Bloom. The man vanishes into the shadows. Bloom returns, the band starts and he and Penelope dance a Bolero – hat on her head, rose in her mouth. She seems unfazed by the mysterious warning.
The next day, Bloom and Penelope encounter Bang Bang, Stephen and The Curator having drinks. Woops! The Curator tells Penelope that the brothers Bloom used to be smugglers, which was the purpose of his warning. At this point, the audience realizes that he is in on the con. Penelope is perversely excited to be keeping company with such criminally inclined people. He tells her that the brothers Bloom were the world’s best smugglers, while the brothers insist that they are “going straight”. The Curator tells a tale of his own illicit smuggling, something he does on the side to make a little more money. The boat lands in Greece, and The Curator reiterates his unspoken “offer” to Penelope in un-subtitled French. The offer being, of course, to join him in his smuggling. She can hardly refuse; she is too excited. Has she finally found her purpose? She packs off in a taxi to take the train to Rome. The brothers and Bang Bang begrudgingly (wink, nudge) come along.
On the train, Penelope engages in her first act of smuggling – stealing treats from the snack vendor’s cart. She is giddy with adrenaline. She writes her name down over and over as “Penelope the Smuggler”, making a flag for their smuggling team, etc. It is all part of the plan, as we find out – Stephen is weaving his web. On the train, Stephen gets a telegram (!) from his old mentor/nemesis named Diamond Dog. Evidently Diamond Dog is on their path, and is looking for revenge. Seems Stephen took Diamond Dog’s eye out at the end of their tutelage. Diamond Dog is looking to even the score.
Meanwhile, in the sleeping car, Penelope and Bloom are talking. She tells Bloom that he is constipated in his soul. A thunderstorm rumbles closer and closer to the train. Penelope seems to lose control and starts getting off on the thunderstorm. Thinking it’s one of Stephen’s ruses (and that maybe Penelope is a plant, one of Stephen’s scripted characters), Bloom leaves the car, and Penelope, and goes to play a chaste round of cards with Bang Bang.
The four arrive in Prague. The deal is – The Curator will steal a book from the vault. He will sell it to the brothers Bloom for $1M. The brothers will then fence the book to someone in Argentina for $2.5M, making a tidy profit. The ever-eager Penelope volunteers to put up her own money (the $1M) to make the transaction. They go to meet The Curator at his apartment. He explains the details of the transaction. As they leave, Penelope gives him the envelope with the check.
Bloom and Penelope walk through Old Town Square in Prague, and are soon holding hands. From his hotel room window, Stephen observes this. Bloom sees his brother watching them. He breaks his hand away.
Bloom sketches and drinks a glass of wine at an empty bar in the hotel. A large man wearing an eye patch shows up and sits beside him. It’s tense. It’s Diamond Dog. Bloom grips his pencil hard, and it appears as though he will use it as a weapon, when all of a sudden, Stephen shows up and attacks Diamond Dog. The brothers escape.
The four show up at The Curator’s apartment, and the place is empty of everything. A quick look in an armoire lets the audience know that The Curator is still there, hiding – but Penelope never sees him. At this point, the audience is again reminded that all of them (Stephen, Bloom, Bang Bang and The Curator) are in on the con against Penelope together. The Curator has taken the check, cashed it, and split town. Now the only thing left to do (to recover the money that is already lost) it to steal the book from the vault.
To steal the book, they must enter the museum grounds and avoid security. To do this, they scheme to set off a small explosive device in one of the towers of the museum that will trigger a smoke alarm. Security will be evacuating the building, and thus they will be too busy and distracted to notice Penelope walking in, squeezing behind a copier into a secret chamber, grabbing the book and walking out.
Bang Bang, in all her enthusiasm, blows up Barbie dolls and plastic chickens, venting her spleen, and practicing for the big day. Meanwhile, Bloom and Penelope seal the deal on their romance. Penelope packs the explosive device into Bang Bang’s backpack. We see that it’s a big brick of C4, instead of the smaller chunk that Bang Bang was preparing.
The next morning, Penelope is poised at the museum gates. Bloom and Stephen are a safe distance away, watching with binoculars. Bang Bang is in position to detonate the “small” explosion. They count it down. Bang Bang presses the detonator. KA-BOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM, half the tower is destroyed in a humongous explosion. Chaos. Security, police swarm the museum. Penelope, undaunted, marches through the crazed crowd, making a beeline for the entrance. Stephen runs toward the museum, screaming CORNED BEEF! (the code word for “abort the mission”). Penelope doesn’t hear him, and continues inside the museum.
Once inside, she goes to the copy room, moves the photocopier, crawls through a door, finds the book, and sees the cops on their way. She escapes through the ventilation ducts, and it doesn’t take much for the cops to find her. She is captured and driven out of the museum in the back of a squad car. The brothers see her as the car speeds past. A few yards later, the car stops, and she is let out with a handshake. She has the coveted book in her possession. It was unscripted. It was real, and Penelope pulled it off. She is beyond excited.
Bloom wanders into Prague’s Petřín Park and steals an apple from a vendor’s cart. A young boy catches him in the act, screams, and a chase ensues. Bloom is arrested and Stephen, irked, has to pick him up from jail. We then see Bloom stealing treats from the snack-cart on the train; he is reinvigorated.
The four are on a boat bound for Mexico to sell the valuable book to the Argentines. Stephen delivers a great line about his disdain for Mexico: “I don’t like to simplistically vilify an entire country… but Mexico is a horrible place.” And a horrible place it turns out to be. On a romantic ocean breeze night, Bloom tells Penelope the truth, that he and his brother are con men. It turns into a showdown between the brothers, and accidentally, a gun goes off. Stephen is shot in the chest. Bloom holds him tight, tells Penelope to run, to get out of there. But we know better, and so does Penelope… and as she discovers, in the end it was all smoke, mirrors and fake blood. Stephen and Bloom were in on the con, and they got away with Penelope’s money. She walks away, dejected.
Three months later – Bang Bang is singing karaoke in a bar in Tokyo, Bloom is tossing cards into the wind in Montenegro, and Penelope is using her newfound explosives skills to blow her New Jersey estate to smithereens. Penelope shows up in Montenegro, wanting to reconnect with Bloom and get into the con artist business. She and Bloom rekindle their romance, and Stephen soon arrives, having anticipated her return.
And here’s where the double-crossing begins. St. Petersburg, Russia. Diamond Dog is back on the brothers’ trail. Stephen mentions that he is out to con Penelope out of another $1.75M (which would have been the equivalent of his, Bloom’s and Bang Bang’s share of the $2.5M they would have made from the sale of the book). The four (Bloom, Penelope, Stephen, Bang bang) drive in the Russian countryside, and their car is soon attacked by machine-gun-toting thugs. The car lurches into the woods and crashes into a tree. Everyone exits the car right before it blows sky-high (it had been rigged with explosives earlier). When Bloom comes to, Bang Bang and Stephen are gone, presumably abducted by Diamond Dog.
Bang Bang appears later, however, and gives Bloom a note saying “Happy Trails”. She turns to walk to her car. A garbage truck passes, and as it does, we see her car get blown to bits. (Side note: I am pretty sure that she jumped onto the garbage truck and detonated her car to cover her tracks, but this is never revisited). Bloom and Penelope find a note that indicates Diamond Dog has kidnapped Stephen. Not messing around, Diamond Dog demands a ransom of exactly $1.75M. Bloom thinks it’s another con on Penelope. She doesn’t care if it’s a scam or not; it’s Bloom’s brother. She wires the money to the account.
Bloom and Penelope drive to an abandoned theater on the coast. This is where they will presumably pick Stephen up. Bloom enters the wrecked theater and finds Stephen on stage, bloodied and battered, held at gunpoint by a Russian thug. Bloom is now really confused – is it a con, or is it real? Is his brother really hurt, or is it another smoke/mirrors/fake blood situation? A gunfight ensues between the thug and Bloom. Stephen is shot in the side. He convulses violently, and appears to die. He then jumps up, spins around, “Can I get a WOW for this?” Bloom is completely freaked out; he thought it was real. They embrace. Bloom realizes that Stephen set him up for the money, and now they can both walk away. Stephen wants Bloom to walk away forever – they say goodbye.
And so Bloom does. He tells Penelope that his brother died in the gunfight. She embraces him, and they drive away. Bloom soon notices that the blood on his shirt, where he embraced his brother, is now brown. It wasn’t fake blood. His brother really is mortally wounded, and Diamond Dog really did demand the ransom. It wasn’t a con. It was unscripted. They pull the car over and Bloom breaks down. This is intercut with Stephen dying on stage, slowly, awfully, in the place he was always meant to occupy. The end.
It’s a lot to explain, really. The film is shot and edited in such a way that all of these details are told in a matter of frames – there is a lot of information jammed into a very economical space, making it hard to synopsize. That said, this director (Rian Johnson) did an AMAZING job with the visuals – cinematography, production design, costume design, hair/makeup, transpo, props – everything worked in harmony, and it was superb! There are a few critics who complain that he borrowed too heavily from Wes Anderson, but I don’t think that’s really important or even relevant. Johnson wrote the script and directed this movie, realizing his own vision. As artists, it’s hard NOT to be influenced by things we see that inspire us. Is the movie Wes Anderson plagiarism? Certainly not.
This film is stylish without being gross. It’s not like a James Bond film where everything looks shiny and unrealistic and almost skeevy, sexual in its luxury. The Brothers Bloom has an elegance about it like an old Persian rug or a vintage Mercedes. There is something timeless and classic about the look of this film, nothing skeevy. Further, it has a certain lack of technology – receiving a telegram? Travel by train and boat? No airplanes? Really? – that underscores its endearing charm.
The costumes are breathtaking in their fabrics, color and construction. Where to begin? This is a tough one.
The brothers, when young, wear ill-fitting black suits with white shirts and rumpled black hats. This is when they are travelling from foster home to foster home, and conning the neighborhood kids. All they have in the world is each other, and these brothers dress alike, an army of two against the world.
Their costumage as grown men is not much different. The brothers wear either black suits (usually three-piece, sometimes with grey or striped vest) with white shirts and black neckties, or light, cream-colored linen suits with black details, or some combination of the above, and usually always, with hats. Bloom often wears ascots under his shirts – a rakish and fascinating detail emphasizing the timelessness of the design. Beautiful!
In the first con scene (Berlin), Bloom describes how he achieved his goal (getting the “mark” to shoot and kill Bloom) by dressing in the same color schematic as the mark’s ex-wife, positioning his body in the same place where the mark shot his ex-wife, and by using the same words she used just before he (the mark) killed her years before. The fact that the characters’ dialog was referential to their awareness of the influence of costuming in their work adds an entirely different layer to the story! As a costume designer, it is a delight to have the opportunity to drill down and create back-stories for every costume choice, knowing that these characters think about their clothing as costumes!
When Bloom takes off on the banana seat bicycle down the hill to crash into Penelope’s car, he wears an old fur earflap hat, vintage pilot goggles, and a fabulous wool pea coat in a subtle dark plaid, with striped wool pants. It was so beautiful; I could almost look at nothing else. The texture of these fabrics is exquisite.
The use of black and white in the brothers’ costumes is like punctuation. When Bloom confronts Stephen in Mexico, and he’s told Penelope the truth, here’s how it works: Bloom in cream linen suit with white shirt (truth, purity), Stephen in long black coat (evil, bad-guy) with cream-colored shirt. They are divided by color, as we (the audience) think they are also divided in their motive/purpose. But these characters know what they are doing – even the costumes are a con!
The fact that the brothers wear no actual color is significant, too. From the time they were young boys, they were scripting their own lives – arranging things purposefully to get what they wanted. Color, real life, spontaneity, never happened to them. It’s missing in their costumes, and it’s missing in their lives.
Penelope, holy Lord, her costumes are so gorgeous. What a great character to design – a beautiful, eccentric quadzillionare. So, the sky is the limit, really. When we first meet Penelope, she is wearing an extraordinary black wide-brimmed hat, a black wrap over the most fabulous brick-red-to-burnt-orange print dress that looks like something out of the 1970s textile designer Vera’s vault. It is fab, fab, fabulous. I am pretty sure that she wears black leggings and boots with this, but I was so knocked out, I stopped writing. Her silhouette is exquisite – I mean, the first time you meet a character, you have to clearly establish who they are. And here she is, in this crazy reddish print dress, getting out of this bright yellow car, with this fabulous hat, and oh man, it is really amazing.
Her second costume change, when she hits Bloom with her car, consists of a black turtleneck dress with a sheer inset in the upper chest, and an emerald green (looks like an old man’s golf cardigan) sweater. Again, vivid color on her – it contrasts nicely with Bloom’s total lack of color.
When Penelope is in the hospital, she wears a hospital gown. Bloom is in the room with her. She gets up to find the bathroom, and flashed her naked tukas at him through the gown, quite unintentionally. It’s pretty funny.
When Penelope meets Bloom, Stephen and Bang Bang at the ocean liner, she wears a show-stopper of a costume: big boots, a dark green wool coat that swings like a cape with red plaid trim at the cuffs, a sick, sick beautiful hat and black leather driving gloves. Her silhouette is totally amazing here. I wish I could find pictures of all of these costumes, but I will have to wait until the DVD comes out! Interesting to note that in this scene, Bloom wears the cream linen suit – we think that he’s innocent, has not wanted to con Penelope, hasn’t pushed her to join them… and then boom, she arrives. Conned again by the costumes!
Once she joins the Brothers, however, the color drains out of her costumes. We see her over the next series of scenes wearing a black tuxedo jacket and pants at dinner, with a black and white silk scarf, a Bretagne sailor striped shirt with a gorgeous cream wool-ish (but probably cashmere) trench coat, and there is one dress – a black and white geometrically-pieced dress with a red detail in the center chest – that is a stunner. Travelling to Prague, Penelope wears all black (top and slim-fitting pants or leggings, boots, and the sick, sick hat) with the same cream trench coat – the silhouette is amazing.
Upon arrival in Prague, she adds a cheetah print wool coat to her ensembles, but it is still in the narrow range of cream, black, white – the brothers Bloom color schematic. The coat is to die for, in texture and silhouette. It’s classic, it’s hip, it’s funky but elegant – such a hard line to ride, and it is done brilliantly here. She also wears a pair of ridiculously beautiful retro-shaped cream framed sunglasses. With Rachel Weisz’ coloring: porcelain skin, dark hair, this ensemble is a total knockout. All of her costumes have a kind of 1960s, almost Jean Seberg (with more hair) vibe to them, and those sunglasses just put me over the edge.
Later that evening she is in her pajamas – black, two-piece pajamas with cream piping detail on the collar – really nice. She and Bloom hook up in this sequence – he’s wearing a white shirt and black pants. Incidentally, it makes me wonder how the DP was able to get through all of the black and white combinations on screen without tearing his hair out? It is sometimes a real challenge to light two people in the same scene when one wears black and the other wears white. I mean, in a controlled environment, it’s probably not too bad. But in The Brothers Bloom, it was like this in most scenes, outdoors, indoors, everywhere. Not easy.
When she goes to the museum to steal the book, Penelope wears a black bowler hat straight out of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which might have been a nod to the Czech location), and a ridiculously cool grey wool cape that cinched at the neck. Redonk!! It is an amazing thing to think about this – counterintuitive, actually – to break into a museum and steal something, you’d think you’d want to blend in, to be incognito, unremarkable. But here goes Penelope in her oddly old-fashioned-looking costume, unnoticed. A very unusual choice, for sure, but it works within the design framework of the film.
When they arrive in Mexico, Penelope wears a fabulous, 1960s-vibe, long sleeved, funnel-neck-ish orange wool dress. It is a break from the brothers Bloom color scheme – she’s fallen in love, and that is unscripted. She wears this dress when Bloom (in cream linen) tells her that he and Stephen are con men, all the way through the fight and the gun going off, and her realizing she’s been had. It’s a lovely bit of punctuation on Penelope’s part, visually. I was almost cheering in the theater.
When Penelope blows up her mansion in New Jersey, she is back to the brothers Bloom color scheme – she’s wearing white, a notable absence of color. Then, when she goes to Montenegro to find Bloom, she wears a black furry coat, and a black/white/red print shirt, a combination we often see Bang Bang wearing.
In the end, Penelope wears a cream-colored dress with a black flounce. Stephen dies, and she embraces Bloom on the side of the road. I kept thinking, “You’re going to get blood on your dress, honey, don’t do it!”, because that dress was amazing.
Speaking of amazing, Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang. She had one line in the entire movie, “Campari!”, but that girl was pantomiming her ass off, stealing every scene. And her costumes just blew the lid off the movie. Because she is a Japanese badass explosives genius, she can also wear whatever she wants… and that includes all manner of red gloves, her signature piece.
When Bloom, Stephen and Bang Bang case out the New Jersey estate, she wears a fabulous red vinyl hat with gigantic red clear plastic sunglasses, a print coat, red gloves, and a white necktie. That’s kind of the thing – Bang Bang always wants to dress like the boys, with her vests and neckties, but she always tosses a little campy funk in the mix. I am really appreciative of the restraint exercised in not taking her into too “Harajuku” a place. It would have been cliché, and out of step with the rest of the film. Instead, Bang Bang comes off as a stylish, French-runway-obsessed sociopath, and that is a beautiful thing.
Diamond Dog is very unusually costumed as well. He seems a tad Shakespearian, not exactly of this earth, with his cane, Davy-Crockett-like hat, strange neck-jewel, huge pinky ring, and cloak-like garments. Not to mention the eye patch with dangling crystal jewel. It’s creepy, and it’s weird – because the character is so off-the-wall that you wonder how he goes through life without being stared at… but then you don’t really ask yourself these questions because you’re lost in the movie.
And that is the point, really, of The Brothers Bloom. It’s so stylish, so stylized, that we are sort of mesmerized. I didn’t care so much about the technical rationale behind the costumes – these are people who are acutely aware of their surroundings and the way they appear and function within those surroundings – I let myself go and enjoy this beautiful feast for the eyes. This is really a don’t-miss, as far as I am concerned, for costumes. I am still smiling when I think about it. Huge congratulations to Beatrix Pasztor and her crew for their beautiful work!!!