I’ve been having some problems lately with movies one would be likely to describe as “quirky” or “cute” (for some examples from this past year, see Gigantic or Management). There has to be something more to them, otherwise these descriptions are inherently negative. I’d like to think this movie goes beyond those descriptors in its creation of a wholly separate reality for its quirk, though it embraces it a bit more than I would have perhaps liked.
This second feature by Rian Johnson (the first being Brick, the unique teen-boiled, high-school noir) is an interesting conundrum. On on hand it’s a failure of overly emotive, too designer-cute sophomore mess of a picture that may seem a bit too indebted to fellow under 40 year old phenom Paul Thomas Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Wes Anderson (not brothers, of course). Of the former, the movie even has an opening prologue narrated by Ricky Jay and what I would term Jon Brion-ish tempo-ed music (actually composed by the writer/director’s own brother Nathan Johnson); Of the latter the attitude toward costume design and music cues are just too similarly placed.
On the other hand, this is a contemplative meditation on the nature of storytelling, artifice, and its overlap into the individual reality around each of us. Yes, it’s an exaggerated tale; It’s stylish and wears its heart on its sleeve. But its also, at its core, a con game, like the subject of the film itself: two brothers who grow up running cons as a means of survival; one who writes them as grandly acted stories (Mark Ruffalo) and the other who passively and begrudgingly acts the knowing unknowing fool over and over (Adrien Brody, who really is better here than it might seem). The Brothers meet along the way a few eccentrically broad set pieces of people, and, at its core, the current mark, Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a woman who has the means to have anything she wants, but is too lonely and isolated to really make it so (a bit like writers I suppose?).
Johnson definitely has a way of constructing an off-kilter realism. My mention of PTA and Wes Anderson are not necessarily reductive or negative. One can’t be faulted for sharing similarities only by way of someone else’s comparison. Yet, the picture concerns characters that are dialogue and set-design driven. They are characterizations over characters that speak in ways that are usually thought rather said; that dress in ways that draw attention to the surrounding feeling rather than the person themselves. Literary/filmic conveniences are used a plenty that excuse the need to explain or dwell on the everyday. In fact, the “real world” hardly exists at all in films like this; there are no supporting characters or surroundings. Only the world of the story.
At the risk of making a highly unrelated comparison, it’s a bit like the tonal flipside of something like Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (or maybe a bit more on par with M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water); It is a film that asks you to both revel in the mystery of the story being told and recognize the play behind the story.
This film is less concerned with the obfuscating nature of the con as some sort of representation of the larger human condition (like say, David Mamet), than a more emotional cathartic character study of a man releasing himself from the trap of his own limited reality (apparently Roger Ebert didn’t “get” this). This story of course does represent for the viewer a similar catharsis, if it works for them correctly. The film provides a window into the greater purpose behind cinema and storytelling as a whole. The problem that a lot of people had with this film, I think, is that they either didn’t want to see a film about something other than the surface story, or they think it has already been done better before (whether it’s Borges or David Lynch). Yet, it is the nature of storytelling to rehash and re-articulate. This film shouldn’t necessarily be criticized for being unoriginal or behind-the-times. I’m not even sure I liked it all that much, but it’s definitely the work of a filmmaker that has much more to offer in the future…
While I may agree with it that “there’s no such thing as an unwritten life, just a badly written one” (And of course, who writes it and how its written is entirely up to you), I might just be a bit too cynical to buy into the story as life analogy where “the perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just the thing they want”. There’s a reason they say “Only in the movies….”