- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

“The Brothers Bloom” might be one of the most satisfying con-caper films ever made.

This sometimes dark but always delightful film begins with a daring seven-minute set piece narrated by the great Ricky Jay that details the two titular brothers’ childhood. Stephen, 13, and Bloom (he’s never given a first name), 10, have been bounced from foster home to foster home, and we soon discover why: These children cook up a clever con to bilk their schoolmates out of $2 each. Stephen does it for the money — and the challenge. Bloom does it because Stephen tells him to — and to win the attentions of a fair-haired young angel.

Fast-forward 25 years, and we find that not much has changed. The globe-trotting brothers might now be in Berlin, but their dynamic is just how it was in small-town America. Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) meticulously details his plans in childlike flowcharts, while Bloom (Adrien Brody) reluctantly goes along with his big brother. “He writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels,” Bloom says with grudging admiration — but he wants “an unwritten life.”

Thus, the stage is set for that frequent dramatic device, the one last con. Stephen hatches a plan to relieve an heiress of a few million. Penelope (Rachel Weisz) is a lonely woman who rarely leaves her house — but then, why bother when it’s “the largest private residence on the Eastern Seaboard”? The eccentric but beautiful woman “collects hobbies,” which include playing a host of musical instruments, juggling chain saws on a unicycle and even rapping. Accompanied by Stephen’s aptly named moll Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the pair lure her to Europe and a smuggling scheme involving the Curator (Robbie Coltrane) and the boys’ old Russian mentor Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell).

“The only danger in this whole thing is that you fall in love with her,” Stephen tells Bloom, so of course, he does. Penelope might not be quite as naive as she seems, though, with her own philosophy of life to rival Stephen’s: “The trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat.”

Writer-director Rian Johnson, following up his witty 2005 debut, the high school noir “Brick,” has a real gift for putting his own modern stamp on time-tested genres. There are few people writing better dialogue today, and his ear for the hard-boiled is particularly suited to crime capers.

Mr. Brody oozes a certain kind of male charm with his melancholy and vulnerability. Mr. Ruffalo has less to do but does it with a steely professionalism. Oscar-nominated for her role in “Babel,” Miss Kikuchi here proves herself a memorable comedian, too. Miss Weisz also reveals a gift for comedy, as her eager heiress gives the film a glorious lightness.

The director’s cousin Nathan Johnson has written a beautiful storybook score that’s a perfect fit for this magical film. As Rian Johnson illustrates in this entertaining and thoughtful film, our lives are the stories we tell. Perhaps there really is no such thing as an unwritten life.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Brothers Bloom”

RATING: PG-13 (Violence, some sensuality and brief strong language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rian Johnson

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

WEB SITE: thebrothersbloom.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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