How do you follow up a film that managed to be both a faithful noir throwback and an unusually effective teen movie? Rian Johnson knew before he finished his 2005 debut “Brick” that his next feature was going to be about con men. But “The Brothers Bloom” is as much about the relationship between two siblings as it is about graft — Bloom (Adrien Brody) and his brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) are the greatest con artists in the world, and like so many of their cinematic brethren, it’s the personal problems that do them in. Bloom, who’s point person in all of Stephen’s artful plans, wants out of the game, but is pulled back in for one last job, one that may have been tailored by Stephen to give his brother everything he’s ever wanted, including the love of an lonely, winsome heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). I talked with Johnson about Europe, Wes Anderson comparisons and “Paper Moon.”
What’s the appeal of genre been to you? “Brick” and now “The Brothers Bloom” have both been located in very specific niches of film language.
The appealing thing about working in genre is it gives you a defined playing field, a chessboard to play on. It also gives you a certain set of audience expectations, both to play with and to play off of, and the discipline of that is something I really like. Those kind of limitations — the space that the thing has to fit into — that’s something that I welcome. Otherwise, it’d be very easy for me to go off the deep end and make four hours of nonsense. (laughs)
Where would you place “Bloom” in relation to the typical conman movie? It exists in a sort of alternate universe.
The conman genre is a pretty flexible one. You’ve got everything from the more intellectualized “House of Games” to broad comedies, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” to fable-type things, “Paper Moon”… I’d say it probably slides more towards the scale of “Paper Moon” if I had to place it in the context of other movies, but I wasn’t really thinking of it that way when I was conceiving it. It came from a place of wanting to take a crack at a character-based conman movie, wanting to do something where the payoff at the end wasn’t a plot twist, but was an emotional payoff, and the challenge of doing that in a genre where the audience is trained to not trust the characters.
Bloom himself is a conman movie archetype, the character who wants to get out of the game, but who gets called back in for one last con.
There’s definitely that element of it, which, again, sets up a familiar dynamic for the audience, which I hope in some ways helps cushion things, especially towards the end of the film when everything doesn’t end up paying off the way that you expected. Obviously Stephen writes these grand fictions and lives his life through a process of storytelling, and Bloom is trapped in a story that he didn’t write, which is something that has a lot of resonance for me. There’ve been plenty of times in my life, in all of our lives, where we kind of take a look around and realize that we’re doggedly playing out a role in a play that we don’t particularly like.
The other easy parallel to make is that of actor and filmmaker — Stephen’s cast his brother as the leading man in all of their cons.
Absolutely… (laughs) I have an immediate reaction to divorce it from those terms just because the way I’d elaborate on that would sound condescending to actors as a trade, so — divorcing it from that, it’s the passivity of Bloom playing these parts as opposed to the activeness of Stephen creating them. Bloom’s journey is going from passive to active and hopefully writing his own story at the end as opposed to just reciting lines.
How do you feel about the Wes Anderson comparisons? Was there any kind of intentional relationship?
There were absolutely no intentional comparisons at all. It’s weird. I’m a big Wes Anderson fan. I love his movies, and if people are going to compare me to something, it’s good to be at least compared to something good. But at the same time, it’s kind of a shallow comparison, especially when it’s put out there dismissively — it indicates to me that maybe they weren’t paying very close attention to the film. It’s mainly a loose connection between the visual styles, and the soundtrack and the fact that Adrien Brody’s in it… But there are so many other films that I stole from more! I’m more surprised I don’t get called out for stealing the whole scene on the steamer ship from “The Lady Eve” or the bearskin rug scene with Shirley MacLaine in “Being There.” I guess I should be thankful that the accusations of theft are so short-sighted. (laughs)