Indie conman caper — too quirky or quite charming?

2009-08-03 00:00

YOUR enjoyment of this film will depend on a number of factors, chief among them your tolerance of or fondness for “quirkiness”. The story follows the career of a pair of con artist brothers, Stephen and his younger brother Bloom (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody). They develop their technique as shuttled-about foster children (seen in a sequence told in a voice over).

Years later, Bloom is sick of the fact that his whole life consists of playing parts in elaborate, even baroque, con stories scripted by Stephen. He wants out, he declares. He wants to have “an unwritten life”.

But he is pulled back in for one last con. They are going to dupe Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a wealthy, eccentric shut-in, the owner of a huge house and fabulous fortune. Bloom must insinuate himself into her life, and then the trap will be sprung. But as Stephen reminds him, he must not fall in love with her.

Of course, the inevitable ensues. Penelope is so starved of human contact that she willingly participates in the scheme, which involves a priceless medieval prayer book and a catacomb under Prague Castle.

The quirkiness comes not only from the set-up, but from the setting. The action takes place in an odd sort of present that seems detached from the modern world. The brothers and Penelope travel from New York to Greece on a steamer that seems to have sailed straight from 1935, and then cross Europe by steam train. The actors contribute to the strangeness, Brody and Weisz are very fey-seeming, and the third member of the Bloom con-gang is the almost mute Japanese Bang Bang, (played by Rinko Kikuchi, who was the deaf teen in Babel).

Nonetheless, even as the quirkiness annoyed me a bit, the performances were rather affecting, Brody in particular managing to be touching as the younger brother doomed to always play a part rather than simply live a life. And a glance at the final credits redeemed a lot, for me. The film was written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous film was Brick, a film-noir set in a high school, the music by Nathan Johnson and some artwork critical to the story by another Johnson. And it was filmed in Serbia-Montenegro, the Czech Republic and Romania, which no doubt largely accounts for the slightly out-of-time air. A big-studio picture freighted with this much quirkiness would be insupportable, but a small indie film done this way seemed endearing.

***

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