Awarded a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for sheer creative chutzpah, writer-director Rian Johnson's teen noir comes damn close to matching the genre-busting audaciousness of Alan Parker's 1976 kiddie-gangster movie Bugsy Malone.
Inserting hard-boiled affectations into a high school drug drama, this low-budget homage delivers a nifty mash-up. In a bland California suburb, misanthropic loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds his ex-girlfriend Emily (Lost's Emilie de Ravin) dead in a drainage pipe. Taking on the role of gumshoe, he digs into the cliques and conspiracies of the high school underworld in search of her killer. Aided by his classmate "The Brain" (Matt O'Leary), his investigation leads him to the typical menagerie of noir characters: the homicidal musclehead, the nervous snitch and a jailbait femme fatale (Nora Zehetner) who could easily step into Mary Astor's back-seamed stockings.
Ultimately, Brendan must befriend his prime suspect: The Pin (Lukas Haas), an honor student and drug kingpin. While Brick takes its tone, plot and dialogue from the likes of Dashiell Hammett, its vision of disaffected youth recalls River's Edge and, at times, A Clockwork Orange. In this teen world, adults are irrelevant, only making an appearance twice. The first appearance is a terrific exchange between Brendan and the school's vice principal (Richard "Shaft" Roundtree) who, as a stand-in for the law, wants Brendan's assistance. Less successful is an appearance by the Pin's doting mother. Played for laughs, the scene takes us out of Johnson's carefully constructed world and reminds us the film is, at its heart, a lark.
The film's hard-boiled vernacular is a clever conceit that establishes a linguistic barrier between the teens and adults. It doesn't always work but when it does, it offers a wonderful contrast between Brick's setting and style.
Most of Brick's postmodern brew goes down easy, but the final act gets bogged down in elaborate plot twists, and Brendan's emotional resolution gets lost in the shuffle. Johnson is so invested in emulating the tone of The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye (the ending is almost a word-for-word re-enactment of one of Hammett's stories) that his film goes off track. We don't care about Emily's death and struggle to empathize with Brendan's need for justice. The genre conventions end up swallowing the film and Brick never attains the dramatic and artistic depths it could have.
The young cast does a pretty good job of handling the stylized slang with ingénue Zehetner faring best. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt solidifies himself as a bona fide star. Coupled with his terrific performance as a gay hustler in last year's Mysterious Skin, the 26-year-old has successfully shed his innocent 3rd Rock From The Sun persona. Brick will only further convince Hollywood that this young actor is someone to watch.
In the end, Brick may be too crafty for its own good, and its appeal is a tad too deliberate. Still, Johnson invests his little film with so much style and originality it's hard to begrudge him his inevitable success. And as far as brain candy goes, this one's pretty damn yummy.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].