Drama and comedy get obscured in murky teen noir
Finally, here’s a film for everyone who wishes Raymond Chandler wrote a novel set in high school! “Brick” has absolutely nothing going for it besides a gimmick—film noir played by teenagers. Its script is highly stylized and full of invented slang, set in a world where the police are “bulls.” It would probably be more enjoyable to read than watch.
Writer/director Rian Johnson seems mightily impressed with his own smarts, but the seamlessly scuzzy ambiance of the Velvet Underground’s two-chord noisefest “Sister Ray,” played over the closing credits, makes the preceding 105 minutes feel hopelessly tame and twee.
In a canal, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers the corpse of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie De Ravin.) She had left him in favor of the school’s wealthier, more popular kids. The day before her body was found, he got a brief, cryptic phone call from her. Turning into a detective, Brendan tries to delve into his high school’s social hierarchy. His friend, nicknamed The Brain (Matt O’Leary), offers clues. He makes the acquaintance of the teenage equivalents of noir archetypes, including femme fatales Kara (Meagan Good) and Laura (Nora Zehetner), stoner Dode (Noah Segan), and thuggish Tugger (Noah Fleiss.) After The Brain tells him that one of Emily’s references might lead to a drug kingpin, he meets The Pin (Lukas Haas), a dealer who walks with a cane and lives with his mother.
“Brick” could have taken one of two more promising roads—playing the material for comedy or really delving deeply into Brendan’s heartache. As it stands, its tones are confused. The first 20 minutes resonate so oddly that one wonders if they’re intended to be funny. Once corpses start piling up, it’s obvious that Johnson does take the story seriously, but his sensibility lacks any feel for loss or grief. Without being particularly sadistic or mean-spirited, it’s still rather heartless. Every incident becomes fuel for a convoluted plot to keep chugging. The agony of lost love gets left behind very quickly.
The roots of “Brick” lie in the ‘80s, when films like “Blade Runner” and “Blue Velvet” found inventive new uses for noir motifs while the malls were filled with teen comedies. “Brick” attempts to synthesize the two—if “Blue Velvet” had never been made, I doubt Johnson would have been inspired to create his film. David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece hasn’t exerted the healthiest influence on other directors. It’s hard to know what parts were intentionally funny—audiences don’t always laugh in the same places—and this ambiguous combination of the goofy and harrowing set the stage for two decades of hip irony that “Brick” draws upon.
There are only two adults in “Brick,” one played by blaxploitation icon Richard Roundtree. The students are never seen in class—they’re too busy getting into fistfights and using or selling drugs. However, the film is so airless and hermetic that it has nothing to say about the way teenagers live. While this saves it from the hypocritical moralism of Larry Clark’s “Kids” and “Bully,” it also renders “Brick” pointless. Despite the cast’s uneven efforts, the characters are secondhand icons, rather than people. Gordon-Levitt was far more memorable in Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” released last year.
“Brick” draws heavily on the novels of Dashiell Hammett, especially in its ending. However, while Johnson loves playing with language, he’s not much of a storyteller. In a film so reliant on its script, that’s a fatal weakness. Howard Hawks’ classic noir “The Big Sleep” is famous for a plot so incoherent that even one of its screenwriters claimed he didn’t who the killer was, but it’s compelling on a moment-to-moment basis in a way that “Brick” never is. Johnson’s direction avoids the genre’s visual clichés of dark lighting and chiaroscuro cinematography, but he doesn’t have much of a distinctive style to offer in their place.
At the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, it won a special jury prize for originality of vision. I guess that means combining ideas from old books and films in seemingly clever ways, rather than having anything new to say. You’d be better off renting either “The Big Sleep” or “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” than going to see this half-hearted mash-up.