The Art of the Con

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School’s out for summer, and teen comedies abound. Most of them are trite, raunchy, potty-mouthed, formulaic – and immensely successful. “The Hangover” is one of them. Its big-budget advertising throughout the spring made it look clever and entertaining, and its 80% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com gave it an air of respectability. Largely a knock-off of the “Dude, Where’s my Car?” genre, in which several friends must retrace their steps after a night of drunken debauchery, “The Hangover” follows the shenanigans of several young men who wake up from a drunken stupor after a bachelor party in Las Vegas. One is

missing a tooth, another is sporting a wedding band, and somebody’s baby is in the closet. Can they retrace their steps and find the groom before the wedding begins? Will they be doing the bride any favors if they do? The film, pushing the well-crumpled envelope of raunch, earned not only that 800/0 approval rating on rotten tomatoes but $45 million in its first week.

At the same time, “The Brothers Bloom,” a clever, intelligent, well- crafted crime caper, opened in a few grubby art houses in cities like New York and LA, earning a respectable 62% rotten tomatoes rating but a meager $2 million in box office receipts in its first month. There’s just no accounting for taste these days. If you want to know more about “The Hangover,” go see it yourself. Meanwhile, I’m going to review “The Brothers Bloom.”

The key to a perfect con job is to give the “mark” something that he or she wants, so that when the con is over, the mark doesn’t come back looking for revenge. A good con always relies on persuading the mark to participate in a slightly shady deal that seems to go terribly wrong, so the mark ends up actually thanking the con artist for helping him or her escape publicity or punishment. In a movie about con artists, the audience wants to be conned as well. As much as we pride ourselves in being able to figure it out, we don’t really want to know how it’s going to end until it’s over. Being taken for a ride is the whole point of the film, and we want to enjoy every moment of the ride.

“The Brothers Bloom” is just that kind of film, one that delights the audience in every scene. It begins with two young brothers (Max Records and Zachary Gordon), dressed solemnly in white shirts and black hats, as they are shipped from foster home to foster home after conducting cons in every town. Young Stephen has discovered that people are predictable, and if you plan carefully enough, you can con them into – or out of – just about anything. He’s a story writer at heart, planning complex schemes and then bringing them to life. Stephen’s younger brother, who inexplicably goes by their surname, Bloom, obviously worships his brother, and will do anything to please him. But he yearns to stay put and treat people as friends instead of plotlines. The two young actors portray these conflicting characters brilliantly.

The boys grow up, with Mark Rufallo and Adrien Brody stepping into the roles of Stephen and Bloom. Their accomplice, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi from “Babel”), is an exotic Asian beauty who never speaks but can handle anything they ask her to do, from seducing a mark to wiring explosives. Bang Bang provides some of the funniest moments in the film, mostly in the form of bizarre props, deadpan looks, and inexplicable actions performed in the background while the main characters are speak- ing – as when she methodically peels an apple, drawing our attention to the steely glint of her knife, then tosses the apple over her shoulder and gnaws nonchalantly on the peel.

A con game works because the scam artist can predict what the mark will do under controlled circumstances. In this case the mark is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric billion-heiress who collects skills (such as skateboarding and accordion playing) instead of stamps and crashes her Lamborghini almost daily. She is anything but predictable. An example: if a bicyclist hits the side of your car and goes flying over your windshield, you11 stop and see whether the bicyclist is hurt, right? I knew this film was going to be different when the mark drove away from the injured bicyclist, backed up, drove a few more feet, backed up again, and then crashed over the embankment into the trees. A predictable reaction? Hardly. And without predictability, the brothers’ scam is in trouble. That keeps the audience deliciously off-balance too.

The caper takes us on an international romp through several European cities, entertaining us with quirky characters, unexpected twists, comic-book headings, and a jazzy musical score by Nathan Johnson that heightens the offbeat tone. You may or may not figure out the ending, or how many twists will play out before the conclusion. But that doesn’t matter, because the journey itself is so much fun.

However, there is nothing comic-book about the relationships between the two brothers, and that’s what makes this more than a simple takeoff on “The Sting.” One orphaned brother seeks adventure and freedom, the other seeks hearth and home. The story is the classic homeward journey, based (according to director and screenwriter RianJohnson) on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The brothers’ names come from Joyce’s characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, and “Penelope” is, of course, a reference to Ulysses’ longsuffering wife in Homer’s “Odyssey” (on which Joyce’s “Ulysses” is based). The film also sports a seedy Faganesque character with one cycloptic eye, “Diamond Dog” (Maximilian Schell). These allusions give the film some depth, even as its offbeat direction and ragtime score give it a lighthearted tone. “The Brothers Bloom” may not be able to compete at the box office with today’s raunchier comedies, but discerning audiences (such as Liberty’s readers) may enjoy it much more.

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