I have said it before and I’ll likely never stop saying it: I freaking love The Brothers Bloom. I have seen it countless times, and, despite the fact that critics often hail it as too twee and superficially whimsical, there is still so much to pull from it. This post assumes you have seen it, so this is your spoiler warning.
I have given a lot of thought to the two brothers and what it is about them that is so alluring. I’m a very, very straight man, so take this all with this in mind: The Brothers Bloom are very sexy dudes. It’s funny though, because neither one, on first glance, looks incredibly sexy. Adrien Brody’s nose is the size of my Honda CR-V and Mark Ruffalo’s round face and saggy eyelids convey a jaded laze about life. However, throughout the film, neither convey even an iota of insecurity or frailty.
Stephen (Ruffalo) leaps into violent action to defend his brother and stab the Diamond Dog. Bloom is bold in the presence of multiple beautiful women, whether dancing, playing cards, or delivering a first kiss. I always think of how he holds Penelope’s neck during their first kiss, and it seems so effortless and confident that I have long wanted to emulate it myself.
These characters don’t just wear confidence as an effortless badge of their identity, but they live a life worthy of the confidence they convey. Their life is one of hopping steamers and bopping from America to Europe to Russia depending on where the tale they twist takes them. Who wouldn’t want that life? Who wouldn’t want to deal in millions of dollars, sending telegraphs from train cars and crafting storied cons referencing great literature and timeless antiques?
I know I would.
Perhaps what this film stirs in me is a desire for all of the above. Years ago I had a conversation with a friend about how the goal of life should not be a stuffed 401k or a paid off mortgage, but the ability to sit down with grandchildren and relay countless stories from our lives. Stories are what make you feel alive and make this life feel like it’s being well lived. Perhaps it’s a bit humanistic for a Christian like me to say this, but at the same time, do I think God made us to live bored lives of drudgery? Of course not.
I think what we often settle for is a substitute. Whether it’s a substitute adventure or story or sexiness, we know deep down when we are living in the shell of the real thing. Take, for example, this past summer’s journey around Guatemala. One of the highlights of the trip was going deep into a cave with a guide and nothing but candles to light our way.
We emerged from the cave feeling more like men than before. We had just had an experience! I felt energized and excited. This had been no Rainforest Cafe cave made of plastic and papier mache; it was a real cave in Central America!
But then I thought about the lives of the guides who went through this cave every day and how un-adventurous it must seem to them, leading flocks of gringos through the cave every day. Perhaps it would seem more adventurous to them to voyage to my home state of Colorado and wander around suburbia.
What I’m saying is, although the cave trip felt so much like a real adventure to Dave and I, it was manufactured. It was a guided tour with a clear entrance, exit, and ropes tied along the way to direct you through the cave. It’s easy to settle for substitutes like these because there is no risk of failing. When I look at the lives of the Brothers Bloom, they don’t really have a plan B. They don’t have parents to fall back on, or a home to return to. There isn’t a safety net.
This is true of all adventure movies in this ilk, and we love them because they allow us to participate in the adventure and the risk without actually risking anything ourselves. In the same way, porn is a moment of intimacy with a woman, but with the risk of rejection or embarrassment removed. When you remove the risk, you also remove a large part of the experience that would actually make you stronger, able to take big risks.
So when Stephen or Bloom come off as confident and even, dare I say, ‘sexy,’ it’s because they have lived a life on the run, full of risks and adventure. They don’t need to manufacture their own confidence because they haven’t settled for manufactured adventures.
So often I find myself simply trying to manufacture my own sexiness: spending time in the gym every day, wearing the right clothes, and saying the right things. These external appearances of confidence are mere masks on a deeply disappointed life devoid of real risks, real adventure, and therefore, real confidence.
Bloom sums it up when he says of his brother, “I think Stephen always wanted to die on a job,” as the film cuts to him running into a fistfight with two lumbering henchmen, rolling up his sleeves as he taunts them:
“Have at me, you ham-headed bastards!”
I have no doubt that all these things — risk, confidence, sexiness, adventure — tie together. Perhaps the only thing missing from the list is purpose, which is the deepest underlying theme of the film. If you blink you’ll miss it. Stephen tells Bloom,
“You’re just scared to drive off into the sunset because every sunset turns into a dark, uncertain night.”
If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that the final shot of the entire film is Bloom and Penelope driving away from Russia, fleeing to Brasil, toward the sunset. The sun drops and night suddenly descends on the viewer, leaving them in an ambiguous uncertainty about the future of the living protagonists. It leaves us asking the biggest question of all: So what?
They got the girl, got the money, beat the bad guys, and wrote the best story of their lives…so now what? What was the purpose of it all? How did anything they did matter at all in the bigger picture? They wrote themselves a whirlwind of a life, but what good is a fantastic story when the sun has set on the world?
Here is where Johnson’s subtle existentialism shines through. Although he just finished making you long for adventure, confidence, and sexiness, you may find a lingering question scratching at the back of your mind: What does it all mean? Where does it all lead?
As someone who has traveled enough to tell you, there is no amount of traveling which will scratch that itch. I’ve been looking for a stopping place for long enough and still have yet to find a location ‘where the sun doesn’t set.’
In the words of Penelope, I’m trying to live like I’m telling the greatest story ever told, but often that gets drowned out by work, traffic, bills, and dentist appointments. That’s why I often feel like an imposter in my own body: I’m not on a real adventure, just a manufactured one; therefore, I’m not really sexy or confident, I just manufacture them.
Does that make sense?