Friday, July 3, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

To get it out of the way quickly, Rian Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom" is essentially a shallow formal rip off of Wes and P.T. Anderson's combined tools. With a ham hand the director mixes in a little Ashby, a little Nichols. Melville's spirit and Joyce's characters are conjured only by name, and Welles only via caricature -- a fat man, caped, wandering a boat. You can parce every shot, or at least every sequence and find its origin immediately, and this sucks, not only because I root for Rian Johnson as a hometown filmmaker (he's from San Clemente), but also because I'd like to think that the director's voice hasn't entirely been consumed by flat, boring theft.

"Brick," Johnson's first feature, had Johnson's flair all over it. The characters spoke in fast-talking jive and the cinematography was tricky and broad, but it was all reigned in on a low budget function-over-form kind of mentality. They did everything they could with a dearth of resources, so the fact that the characters were a bit incohesive or that the jive was a bit forced is overshadowed by the fact that, hey, they did it.

This isn't to give "Brick" a pass. I think it stands up as a quality first feature, and a nice stone of a filmmaker stepping into his voice. The last thing I expected, though, was to give him a budget only to have him poorly imitate someone else. It makes me hope that he got all of this faux-homage out of his system in one fell movie, but it also makes me wonder if he had his own voice in the first place. The latter is the true bummer of "Bloom."

So, here's the dilema: A filmmaker releases a solid neo-noir movie, albeit one wrought with romanticized homage for its own genre. Then, later, the filmmaker releases a con-man movie that is the flipside of the coin: homage becomes theft, genre becomes trope, flair becomes bordom. Which one do I believe? I can't help but view "Bloom" through the expectations of "Brick," and, without a third movie to relate them both to, I can't quite tell where "Brick" falls into Johnson's career. Will "Bloom" be the misfire, or will "Brick" emerge as the most idiosyncratic outlier? I just don't know, but "Bloom" makes me nervous about the answer.

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