Management and The Brothers Bloom, reviewed.

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May 15 2009 5:36 PM

Buddhist Stalkers, Orphan Con Men

Management and The Brothers Bloom, reviewed.

If you like your romantic comedies cleverly cast and wildly improbable, you'll have two to choose from this weekend. Management(Samuel Goldwyn Films), the directing debut of screenwriter Stephen Belber (Tape, The Laramie Project), has the nifty idea of pairing up Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston but squanders the actors' chemistry on a scenario that's less a romance than a study in complementary pathologies. The Brothers Bloom (Summit Entertainment), the second directorial outing of Rian Johnson( Brick),takes four normally irresistible actors—Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel Weisz, and Rinko Kikuchi—and renders them highly resistible.

Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn in Management
Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn in Management 
Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Jennifer Aniston is not so much America's sweetheart as she is America's really nice ex-girlfriend. The tabloid vision of Jen eternally moping over Brad and Angie's idyll is no doubt ridiculous—I'm sure she's perfectly fine with her on-again off-again romances and her ever-present bottle of Smartwater. Nonetheless, the place she occupies in our collective consciousness is that of the good-hearted, lonely, perpetually single girl, probably ready to settle down and have a baby but muddling through on her own. Aniston has always been best in roles that treat her not as a glamour cat but as a plain Jane: the adulterous Texas housewife in The Good Girl or the stoned housecleaner in Friends With Money.

In Management, Aniston revisits that comic persona as Sue, a traveling sales rep who has an awkward fling with motel desk clerk Mike (Zahn) during a business trip to Arizona. The passionate and clueless Mike proceeds to buy a one-way ticket to Maryland, convinced that their laundry-room quickie was the start of a grand romance. But Sue, understandably disquieted by this intrusion, reveals she's not yet over her ex-boyfriend Jango (the scarily funny Woody Harrelson), a former-punk-rocker-turned-millionaire-yogurt-mogul. The rest of the movie is a low-speed cross-country chase, as Mike returns to Arizona with his tail between his legs, then eventually follows Sue to Jango's lavish compound in Washington state. In the tradition of romantic comedies from Say Anything on, Management amounts to a defense of stalking: Stand outside your beloved's window with the right song playing (here, it's an amateur keyboard cover of "Feel Like Makin' Love") and she's yours for keeps.

Despite the essential implausibility of the story (and some weird narrative choices, like Mike's third-act stint in a Buddhist monastery), Management remains for the most part as endearing as its leads. Steve Zahn is a wonderful actor who's spent too long in the "hey, it's that guy" best-friend role—his performance as a starving prisoner of war in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn gave the film's lead, Christian Bale, a run for his money. He and Aniston transcend the contrivances of the script to convince us of that one essential romantic-comedy truth: that somehow, against all odds, they belong together.

Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rinko Kikuchi in The Brothers Bloom
Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rinko Kikuchi in The Brothers Bloom

The only place the characters in The Brothers Bloom belong is at the bottom of a very deep river. One question rings hollowly in the brain for the length this painfully twee romp: What hath Wes Anderson wrought? Rian Johnson, who showed a deft touch for pastiche in Brick, here seems suffocated by Andersonian preciousness. Like Anderson, Johnson has a fine eye for color, great taste in music, and a knack for painterly compositions, but the world he creates is airless and ultimately empty.

A prologue in rhymed verse establishes the title characters, Stephen and Bloom (contextless Joyce reference duly noted), as orphaned brothers who grow up bouncing from foster home to foster home, perfecting the art of the long con. Stephen, played as an adult by Mark Ruffalo, is the mastermind behind their impossibly convoluted schemes; he sees himself less as a con man than as a writer, with the hapless Bloom (Adrien Brody) as a main character whose story is continually being rewritten. Bloom wants to leave the game for good, but Stephen convinces him to stick around for one last big score. (Haven't con men seen enough movies by now to know that the last big score is never a smart idea?) They set their sights on Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a widowed heiress with a vast fortune and unlimited time to pursue kooky hobbies. Having mastered juggling, unicycling, and the art of constructing pinhole cameras from watermelons, she decides to try her hand at antiquities smuggling in Prague, convinced that the Bloom brothers are her accomplices when all the while they're playing her for a fool.

A pull quote in the ad for The Brothers Bloom calls Weisz "irresistibly madcap," but the only thing I found irresistible was the temptation to strangle her. It's not that Weisz's performance is bad; it's that her character, as written, is insufferably cutesy. The simple fact that Penelope has enough money to knowingly underwrite the brothers' whole scheme—told something will set her back $1 million, she scoffs, "That's like, whatever"—renders the stakes of their game too low to be worth caring about. When Bloom endangers the con by falling for Penelope, you want to tell him to take the money and run instead. Rinko Kikuchi, the young Japanese actress who was so unforgettable in Babel, has a nearly wordless part as an explosives expert named Bang Bang who travels with Stephen as his "personal masseuse"; the role comes uncomfortably close to an Asian sex-doll stereotype of the "Me love you long time" variety. Ruffalo and Brody are actors I'll follow almost anywhere, but though they strain admirably to resemble two grifting brothers locked in mortal combat, they just seem like two guys stuck in a really bad movie.