I’m a big fan of con man movies. They have a certain pleasing shape to them. It’s a world where the smartest person wins—not the strongest or the most stubborn or the nicest. The one that thinks ahead and plans the best wins.
They aren’t the innocent protagonist thrown up against a terrible world—they aren’t Jimmy Stewart or Luke Skywalker or the Karate Kid. They aren’t the disadvantaged underdog with a heart of gold—they aren’t Forest Gump or Rocky or Pretty Woman. The heroes of con movies are never morally perfect. They are tarnished and faulty, like the rest of us. Their power comes not from earnestness and naiveté, but an understanding of the darker side of human nature. Like the Shadow, they understand the evil that lurks in the hearts of men and use it against them.
I’ve seen them all. David Mamet. The Sting. The overrated Grifters. Catch Me if You Can. Paper Moon. The Flim Flam Man. Waking Ned Divine. The TV show White Collar. But The Brothers Bloom offers something new.
You can tell from the beginning that it is a story about identity. Bloom, shy and inward, is brought to life (blooms) by his brother Stephen who invents an elaborate con (which was brilliant, by the way) not just for money, but to give his brother a role in which he can find the bravery to talk with other kids. In many ways it takes both brothers to live that one life—one to write the script for it, the other to live it. Hence The Brothers Bloom, even though only one of them is named Bloom—the two of them are living one life.
It goes deeper than this. The final mark, Penelope, also lives a fabricated life. Unlike Bloom, though, she writes her own life. She says, “This was a story about a girl who could find infinite beauty in anything, any little thing, and even love the person she was trapped with. And I told myself this story until it became true. Now, did doing this help me escape a wasted life? Or did it blind me so I didn't want to escape it? I don't know, but either way I was the one telling my own story.”
Bloom, through the movie, tries to leave the perpetual cons his brother writes for him, but when he does he still feels somehow incomplete. He hasn’t learned to write his own life, as he will learn later from Penelope. When he does finally reach that point, when he can fully occupy his life, there is no room left for the other brother Bloom (Stephen). Hence the end.
Bloom’s quest for an unwritten life, or more accurately a self-written life, is fulfilled partially due to the fulfillment of Stephens quest—to tell a con so well it becomes true.
Just like Stephen, Rian Johnson tells the ultimate con—a con so well it becomes true. The con is that The Brothers Bloom is a story about identity disguised as a con movie. Like the victims of the Brothers Bloom, the critics (both the ones who enjoyed the movie and the ones who panned it) couldn’t penetrate the illusion. All they had to do was look at the title and realize there was only one brother Bloom, and wonder about the title. But they were so sure that this was nothing but a con movie, they were unaware what was going on under their noses.
In addition, it was nice to see Rachel Weisz unfurl her acting ability. It is a wonder what happens when you don’t have to act opposite a mummy.