Movie review by Greg Carlson
Young writer-director Rian Johnson’s “Brick” is one of the year’s must-see movies for cinephiles, a love-it-or-hate-it homage to classic film noir, complete with fussy dialogue sprinkled with period allusions and plot points virtually lifted from Hammett and Chandler. The source of the movie’s considerable attention – it won a special jury prize at Sundance for “Originality of Vision” – stems from its setting, a California high school. Johnson begs the viewer to suspend disbelief immediately (no teenager would call female acquaintances “Angel” ala Bogart, or be referred to as “shamus”), jumping into a world largely devoid of adults. The kids in “Brick” might show up for class occasionally, but if they do we never see it. It is much more interesting to tangle with shady hoods and solve mysteries.
The increasingly excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who improves with nearly every role, plays Brendan, a bespectacled loner who carries a torch for his addict ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). An enigmatic phone call, littered with a string of clues that will lead Brendan into dangerous waters, sets into motion the plot, which veers and curves like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” Determined to uncover the truth surrounding Emily’s disappearance, Brendan crosses paths with The Pin (Lukas Haas), a baby-faced drug lord who still lives with his mom. The Pin, decked out with cape and cane, would be ludicrous if not for Haas’ expert treatment.
Some of the other stock noir types, particularly the femmes fatale, don’t fare as well. Johnson might be sticking close to classic noir’s misogynistic streak, but “Brick’s” spin on sexuality is all talk and no play. The abundantly talented Meagan Good, playing a drama queen in every sense of the word, tosses steamy one-liners like sharp firecrackers, but barring her predilection for underclassmen (in a lame running gag), she’s all dressed up with no place to go. Even harder to swallow is the character of Laura (Nora Zehetner), in what might be called the Mary Astor role; she lacks the gravitas to be taken as seriously as her leading man. It doesn’t help that Johnson ignores her when she is needed most.
“Brick” is at its very best when Gordon-Levitt is chomping through the miles of stylized tough talk. Noir’s nihilism proves to be well-suited to the milieu of navel-gazing teens, and Brendan’s slicing put-downs and withering sarcasm fit the movie like a glove. Johnson is as much inspired by recent filmmakers – especially the Coens and David Lynch – as he is by the likes of Hawks and Huston, and “Brick” must be credited for achieving an impressive look and feel on an extremely limited budget (it reportedly cost only 500,000 dollars).
It is unknown if “Brick” will improve or diminish with multiple viewings. Given the success story of its film school tyro, the movie is destined to become required viewing for wannabe auteur moviemakers, at least in the short term. By no means does “Brick” ever feel like a great film, though its dazzling moments outnumber its self-consciously cute ones. Like the best of the original noir movies, it traffics in cynicism and angst. That the characters are teenagers only adds to the ache of its pessimistic, isolated worldview. If that is your sort of thing, “Brick” is the ticket.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/26/06.