A quick description of Brick, Rian Johnson s debut feature, sounds like a recipe for insufferable cleverness a cute idea slathered on so thick whatever pores allow it to breathe would be sucking for air.
And that is exactly what happens: It has the clever idea of transposing the hard-boiled, black-and-white gumshoe noir of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to the sunny halls and parking lots of a Southern California high school.
Movies love comparing the hothouse of high school to the real world. High school is like a wild-game preserve (Mean Girls). No, high school is like French costume drama (Cruel Intentions, a take on Dangerous Liaisons). Brick is not saying high school is like a 40s detective novel. It s not even asking us to see how closely the two worlds correspond it s way too self-absorbed to even notice us.
In other words, a stunt.
But a stunt to which Johnson is fully committed. He captures the slinky postures of films like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon; the wide-screen panoramas of Chinatown; the black and white is now a jaundiced smog; the dialogue is impenetrable slang; the tone is unwaveringly deadpan.
No doubt he stayed true.
To his credit, Johnson doesn t opt for the easy brainlessness of a typical teen flick. (You won t even hear a dude. ) And though it won a special award at Sundance 2005 for originality of vision, it was more for ambition. He s not interested in the grit of a family being torn apart or even teenagers in trouble to name a couple of en vogue indie topics. He s serious. The irony (of teenagers tossing around vintage 40s dialogue) is that there s no irony all. It s entirely serious.
Which means, not much fun.
The story, in short: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (so much better than anything near this) plays Brendan, a loner whose girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin, of Lost) just left him for a cooler crowd cooler and shadier. She calls Brendan asking for help. She mentions a brick. Before he can get to her, Brendan is staring down at her body, dumped in a drainage pipe.
That scene is telling.
We get the typical noir thug, the kingpin (Lukas Haas, throwing us a wink), the moll, the toadie, the seductress playing, and the corpse. And yet each remains one-dimensional, so detached and cloaked in style, you re reminded of kids playing dress-up (even if the clothing is contemporary). Of course, when Lauren Bacall virtually defined our image of a smoky temptress in To Have and Have Not (1944), she was 19. But age wasn t the point the tempting part was.
Brick is about age (I guess) but too obsessed with noir to transcend the genre or say something about it, or high school particularly at the end when you hope the mystery turns out to be more than elementary. It s not. It s impractical. Johnson grasps that noir was often about style, dialogue, posturing. But it was the style of the original creators of noir. Noir can be adopted, but without a purpose, you can t make it your own.
He s playing dress-up.
And yet, the point of it all?
There are precedents. Namely, Alan Parker s Bugsy Malone (1976). In it, kids played gangsters. Could he be paying homage? Unlikely. There s the mash-up theory a mash-up being a blend of two disparate pieces of pop into something new, the way Danger Mouse mashed the Beatles White Album into Jay-Z s Black Album and created the transcendent Gray Album.
Nah. Brick s too reverential.
More likely, Johnson, a young filmmaker with style to burn, wants our attention. He has it. Now, if he could only take that style to burn and burn it.