Writer-director Rian Johnson's 2005 debut feature Brick was a marvelous genre experiment, inserting the language, plot and mentality of hard-boiled detective fiction almost unchanged into a high school setting. The film was a wholly successful mash-up, with both sides of the equation seeming all the fresher for the wild new context, and the film, it's hardly controversial to say, is one of the best neo-noirs and high school stories of the decade.

Johnson's follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, is also something of a genre experiment, and it's nowhere near as successful as Brick, partially because it tries on the one hand to branch across too many different styles and on the other because it doesn't do all that much with them. At heart, this is a straightforward con artist adventure, shot through with the aggressive quirky tone of Wes Anderson and his many imitators, set in a timeless environment that is probably meant to be the modern day but feels an awful lot like it's the 1930s and matinee serial adventurers are still combing the globe for excitement and glory. Then, if that's all too easy to make sense of right away, Johnson tosses in a whole bunch of arch literary references, including the most casually unexplicated riff on James Joyce's Ulysses that I can remember.

To begin with the story: the brothers Bloom are Stephen and Bloom (whose name I therefore take to be "Bloom Bloom", in the manner of Nabokovian pedophiles and video game plumbers all throughout history), who tear from one foster home to another, causing all sorts of unpleasantness in their wake. It comes to a point where Stephen notices that Bloom is a lonely, shy sort, and so he comes up with a sort of game to encourage him to come out of his shell; it happens to be a con perpetrated on all the rich kids in town, but it at least encourages Bloom to talk to a girl for the first time, even if he has to pretend to be someone else to do it.

25 years later, Stephen is played by Mark Ruffalo, Bloom by Adrien Brody, and they're still at the con game. In fact, they've become the best con artists in the world, although Bloom is tired of it. He no longer wants to act like another person, but to live a life of his own; and this is something Stephen permits for three months. Then he comes to Bloom with one last con: there's a loopy heiress living in a giant mansion in New Jersey, Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), and if they can make a couple million dollars by bringing her out of her cloistered existence for a few weeks' jaunt around Europe playing spy, who's to be hurt? And almost immediately after that, the plot gets far too complex to bother recapping, though I can safely say that Bloom commits the great sin of falling in love with their mark, though it's hard to say if that was or wasn't Stephen's goal all along.

My God, where to begin with this? The single biggest problem with the film, bar none, is that all of Johnson's best ideas are used up with a solid half-hour to go, which means we get a false finale, a false third act, and the last quarter of the movie taken up by the most blatant sort of padding. But this seems like a mean thing to mention, because the first three quarters are actually pretty good, if a touch fussy. Weirdly fussy, and I'm not sure how exactly to explain it, but my best attempt is to say that it's anti-Wes Anderson. That is, Johnson's style here is clearly based upon Anderson's trademark blend of carefully symmetric frames, '60s and '70s musical cues, and lateral camera movements, but the effect is almost exactly the opposite of how Anderson uses those things. All of the fussiness in The Brothers Bloom, including not just those directorial choices but also some elements of the story structure, which thrives on repeated lines and situations, serves to trap the characters in a cage, something that Anderson and his imitators never seem to to deliberately, though it often happens by accident. In essence, Johnson is using a particular and very carefully created style to indict itself. That's a lot for a movie to bear, and it comes so close to working, until Johnson starts to lapse into laziness (for me, the shift happens when he apparently unironically uses Cat Stevens's "Miles from Nowhere" on the soundtrack).

Elsewhere in the film - all the parts of the movie don't cohere the way you might hope - there is that strange "out of time" quality, and I found it quite pleasing in the main: the scenario feels very '30s, the sets and cars are all '00s, the costumes jump all over but strike me as being anchored in the '60s. This is, I think, Johnson's way of suggesting that a good adventure yarn is timeless. After a fashion, The Brothers Bloom is about itself as a story: hence the way it recklessly blends narrative elements from different periods, the way that the writer-director plays around with clichés, practically begging us to predict where the story is going so that as we watch it go there we can see how it's constructed - oh, and then at the last second, here's a twist. And the story is actually about stories, really: Stephen makes a point of building his cons around literary archetypes, and comes to view the elements of his own life as a chunk of story rather than something he is actually living through - he is one of those rare fictional characters who is quite aware that he is a fictional character, though I doubt strongly that he realises that he's in a movie. Anyhow, that trope is used to really interestingly weird effect in this film, though it's quite hard to explain it.

As a point of comparison, though, Stephen is likely based on Joyce's Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses (much as Bloom is - obviously - Leopold Bloom, the man who finds himself searching for an anchor to re-establish his sense of self, and Penelope is Molly Bloom, herself based on Odysseus's wife Penelope in The Odyssey), who in the author's previous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man managed to exert a measure of will over the composition of the book he appeared in. I certainly don't think that The Brothers Bloom is thus an adaptation of Joyce in any way, but Johnson's writing suggests a similar level of self-aware artifice, and this I hope explains at least a little bit of why it is interesting, and rather more frustrating.

Which leaves, I think, just the acting, which is of a generally high quality. Ruffalo doesn't get to do much, oddly; though he has the most peculiar character, most of those peculiarities are of necessity hidden behind a smooth con man's grin. Brody is the best he's been in a long time, as a damaged man who slowly attempts to repair himself. But the film is quite carried away by its women: Weisz, who starts out as an unusually melancholy variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl model, and is revealed, layer by layer, to have the most complex set of motivations of anyone in the film, and Rinko Kikuchi as a silent explosives expert who doesn't really have a character at all, but gets to demonstrate a pronounced facility with physical comedy.

The Brothers Bloom is one of those movies. You know, Them. The ones where there's a whole lot of individual things to like, and the movie is nothing more than the sum of its parts, perhaps less than that. But it's fun, at least, and has a discipline of style not often found in the quirkier indie films out there - and I can't tell if this is a parody of those films or one of them, but either way it's quite quirky. I guess I'd say that it's a fine movie to like, although nearly impossible to love. And from the man who gave us the immensely lovable Brick, this is a minor disappointment.