Toronto Film Festival Update #2

September 05, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It was good to see Roger Ebert in Toronto yesterday. For me, this festival has always been associated with Mr. Ebert. It was based on his advice that I first attended in 1997 (after receiving accreditation in part because of a letter of introduction he wrote). I met him face-to-face for the first time that year and spent a pleasant evening in his company. Every year since then, Toronto has represented an opportunity to catch up with him. Considering his health problems in recent years (and especially earlier in 2008), it was encouraging to see him "back in the saddle" again. Of course, those visiting his website recognize that he has been hard at work for some months now, but this is further evidence that (hopefully) the darkest days are past. Either way, he is doing what he loves. Because he cannot speak, no real conversation was possible, but I shook his hand and received a warm smile and hearty thumbs up.

Unfortunately, this pleasant encounter was succeeded by a much less pleasant experience: the return of Guy Ritchie.

Ritchie made his mark for film-goers not by marrying one of the world's most visible pop stars, but by crafting Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. After that, he went off the deep end, and his most recent features, Swept Away and Revolver, have been unmitigated disasters. RocknRolla is Ritchie's attempt to return to his roots: rough and tumble action, convoluted plots, and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. All of these things are on exhibit in RocknRolla, but they do not flow smoothly. They feel forced and unnatural, as if Ritchie was keenly aware of what he had to do but couldn't recapture the magic.

The story, as one might expect, features a congregation of bad guys who sleaze around London's underworld. They include a boss played by a scenery-chewing Tom Wilkinson, a two-bit thug portrayed by Gerard Butler, and a femme fatale in the person of Thandie Newton. There are various double-crosses, a Maguffin in the shape of a painting we never see, and a Russian land developer who hires some unsavory underlings. Throw in a junkie ex-rock star and a posse of tough guys, and you have typical Ritchie territory. Plot threads entwine and overlap and, in the end, it all comes together. Yet, when the end credits roll, instead of shouting, "Damn, that was cool!" there's a desire to yell, "Damn, that was lame!"

RocknRolla has a few high octane moments: the opening credits, which are loud and boisterous; a caper-gone-wrong that finds the right mixture of comedy and action; and a uniquely edited sex scene. Unfortunately, the things that work in this movie are dwarfed by those that don't. Some of the "clever" bits, such as the big, black thug who understands culture and art, are clich├ęs. The movie spins out of control when it begins to focus on the rock star Johnny Quid, whose presence in the film serves only to add another layer of complications to an already convoluted plot. The involvement of people like Johnny diverts the story from the more interesting characters.

RocknRolla often feels more like a parody of a Guy Ritchie film than a real movie. Lock, Stock and Snatch both rolled along like bizarre cinematic Rube Goldberg machines where the endings justified the convulsions needed to get to that point. RocknRolla breaks down along the way and the ending is so anti-climactic that it leaves one wondering: "Is that all?" Based on the evidence at hand, one can safely state that Ritchie is a one-note director. With RocknRolla, that note is off-key.

Things got better later in the day with the screening of The Brothers Bloom, a caper movie starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz. The second feature of Rian Johnson, whose debut Brick won him acclaim and admirers, The Brothers Bloom is evidence that not all filmmakers fall victim to the so-called "sophomore slump." This is a delightful motion picture with everything one might reasonably expect from such a film: great chemistry between the actors, elements of genuine pathos, an unanticipated twist or turn or two, and a high incidence of comedy that's actually funny.

Brody and Ruffalo play Bloom and Stephen, two thirty-something con men who have become legendary because of the audacity and complexity of their schemes. The capers are plotted by Stephen, who "writes [them] the way dead Russians wrote novels." That makes him the Dostoevsky of the caper world. Bloom, however, wants out. He wants an "unwritten life." He wants something real. So his brother convinces him to go out big, with one last scam. Aided by their girl Friday, Bang Bang (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi, whose limited English isn't a problem because the film doesn't require her to speak more than a handful of words - including a memorable "fuck me"), the Brothers Bloom head for New Jersey. Their mark is a wealthy heiress named Penelope (Weisz), who has a penchant for crashing expensive cars, is a self-described "epileptic photographer," and "collects hobbies." She and Stephen meet (the term "meet cute" doesn't quite apply here), get to know each other, and fall in love. That's bad for the con because, of course, it's tough to screw over a lover. Then again, considering Stephen's penchant for long, involved, convoluted capers, maybe that's necessary to what's happening - especially when one considers that "The best con is when everyone gets what they want."

The Brothers Bloom with satisfy those with a yearning for lighthearted heist tales, comedies, and offbeat romances. There's plenty of love in the air, both of the sexual and fraternal kind. The movie breezes by effortlessly, and goes down easy. One or two of the twists aren't unexpected and a few of the turns may cause some head-scratching (the mechanics of the climax are a little puzzling and leave themselves up to interpretation), but they punctuate the storyline with comfortable regularity. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of The Brothers Bloom is the comedy, which manages to be funny and smart at the same time - a rarity when most movies are aiming low and going for the least common denominator when it comes to humor. (Full disclosure - there is a "fart joke.")

The actors are well matched to the parts and mesh together. Adrien Brody plays the role of Bloom with a suitable helping of melancholy and loneliness, and works surprisingly well as a romantic lead. (Better, at least, than in King Kong.) Mark Ruffalo is a likeable rogue - a change of pace for a guy who usually plays darker and heavier parts. Rachel Weisz positively sparkles, lending her blend of sexiness and ditziness to this film (instead of wasting it on the third Mummy movie). Rinko Kikuchi steals scenes with her nearly-mute portrayal of Bang Bang - boy, does that woman have an expressive face! Maximilian Schell and Robbie Coltrane have supporting parts.

It's hard not to enjoy The Brothers Bloom - it's made to be savored, but can also be consumed by an ADD viewer. Unlike Brick, which was pitched to a niche audience (and found it), The Brothers Bloom is entirely mainstream, and can be expected to find widespread favor when Summit Entertainment provides it with a general release. A lot of film festival fare can be dark and deep, so it's a pleasure when something like this allows audiences to emerge from the caverns of festival screening rooms into the light of something fresh and fun.