You can see the bulging vein of forced creativity throughout "The Brothers Bloom," a romp meant to evoke an Old World dream of steamships, elegant deception and moneyed eccentrics but that mostly recalls -- with ever-diminishing returns -- the arch playgrounds of Wes Anderson movies.
Con movies and the fractured bonds of family are writer-director Rian Johnson's twin engines here, as he opens with a whiplash-paced, whip-pan-crammed Ricky Jay-narrated prologue explaining the orphans-to-grifters origins and psychological background of fraudsters Stephen and Bloom. In a nutshell, Stephen's the heartless master manipulator and Bloom's the romantic who feels he's merely a cog in his brother's flow chart view of the world.
When we pick up with them as adults, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) senses his bro's need to break free and devises one last great con, in which Bloom (Adrien Brody) seduces a wacky heiress shut-in named Penelope (Rachel Weisz) into participating in a country-hopping smuggling operation that takes them to Greece, Russia, the Czech Republic and Mexico. In tow are the siblings' Japanese explosives moll Bang Bang (a committed Rinko Kikuchi), a rival/partner Belgian (Robbie Coltrane) and Diamond Dog (a sleazy Maximilian Schell).
But when Bloom begins to fall for Penelope, his obligation to his brother's elaborate plans begins to clash with his own desire to live "an unwritten life."
Nice, that yearn for vulnerability, but it's hard to latch onto when the movie surrounding Brody's gentleman cheat is so devoid of genuine feeling and organic momentum. The leads aren't only miscast -- Brody over-mopes and the usually wonderful Ruffalo seems out of sorts as a rascally schemer -- but interest in the con plot fades as the director's bag of tricks empties further.
Johnson, whose first film was the stylized teen noir "Brick," is so in the thrall of filmmaking quirks that if he's not distracting us himself, he's enlisting his actors; hence Weisz juggling chain saws and writhing orgasmically to thunderstorms.
The irony is that outside of the manufactured oddities, Weisz's performance is the best thing in the movie: an old-school screwball turn of hypercurious pep. When she chirps "Let's be smugglers!" in a burst of devilish glee, you feel her thirst for adventure more easily than Johnson's overwrought blueprint for fun can muster.
'The Brothers Bloom'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence, some sensuality and brief strong language.
Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles