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TORONTO—Greetings from the Toronto film festival, where grown men will bull past you without so much as an "excuse me" to get into a high-profile industry screening, then watch 20 minutes of the movie and walk out. Last night's screening of Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom started a half hour late, a rarity at this impeccably well-managed fest, but the young woman who came in to explain the delay still got a face full of hostility from the crowd. Fortunately I'd come equipped with a saw-toothed survival knife and was able to cut through the sense of entitlement for a clear view of the screen.
Johnson made his feature debut with the art-house sleeper Brick (2006), which transposed the hard-boiled dialogue and tangled mystery of a Dashiell Hammett novel to a suburban SoCal high school. It was one of those microbudget indies whose script has been so lovingly polished that it overcomes any financial limitations, though it also benefited from a magnetic performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the hero, a jaded gumshoe in sneakers. With The Brothers Bloom, Johnson has a little more money to play with (about $20 million according to IndieWire, still a pittance by industry standards), and he gets the most out of it, conjuring up a continental, Old World-vibe with locations in eastern Europe. There are also an unusual number of fireballs for an art-house movie, which proves you don't have to be Michael Bay to blow stuff up. In fact, it blows up real good.
Like Brick, the new movie is a puckish reworking of a familiar tale—in this case the con-man story, in which a professional trickster falls in love and has to figure out whether he's capable of maintaining a relationship based on candor rather than deception. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody are a pair of brothers who, shunted from one foster home to another in their youth, have learned to trust only each other. Ruffalo is the older sibling, the plotter, and Johnson lays it on pretty thick in comparing his skills to those of a storyteller. "He writes cons like dead Russians write novels—with thematic arcs," Brody explains in voice-over. The rub comes when Brody falls for an eccentric heiress (Rachel Weisz), the perfect mark.
It's the sort of unapologetically self-conscious movie that requires a little generosity but also rewards it. Johnson is a witty writer, and he does a lot more with the camera here than he could afford to with Brick. Strangely, though, The Brothers Bloom seems less novel than its predecessor, which actually used the noir mythology to comment on the ruthlessness of high school kids. The Brothers Bloom is every bit as quirky and literate, but without the earlier movie's edge, it kept reminding me of Wes Anderson's comedies (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). One Wes Anderson is enough for me—though, given the choice, I'd rather have another of him than another Michael Bay.