The Junk Food of Writing

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Brick (Johnson, 2006)


After leaving Third Rock from the Sun and landing in the world of risky cinema, Joseph Gordon-Levitt finally sees the light.

She’s the Man, a teenage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is currently circulating the multiplexes. Over the past decade, nearly a dozen modernized adaptations of Shakespeare have been mass produced and distributed (and, shockingly, not all starred Julia Stiles). If the bard can have at least a handful of his own youthful adaptations, whether he wants them or not -- I’m betting it’s the latter, since a handful of those updates warrant at least a few tosses in the grave -- why can’t Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler? Director Rian Johnson answers that question with the contemporary-set Brick, a sly, dexterous and dapper detective tale which serves as both an homage and a send-up of archetypal noir stories.

The plot of Brick is, in pure noir fashion, deceptively uncomplicated. After receiving a worrisome phone call from a missing ex-girlfriend, Emily (a whiny Emilie de Ravin), Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins an investigation around his present-day southern California high school for her and ends up in troubling situations. No, this is not the type of trouble that will send him to detention. Brendan, in an attempt to “shake things up,” becomes involved in the underground drug operations of his school, which are run by The Pin (a faux-hawk donning, duck-cane-holding Lukas Haas) out of the wood-paneled basement of his parent’s house. The film manages to sneak in a few allusions to The Maltese Falcon here -- Lukas Haas' brass falcons (which appear on his mailbox and in his lair) often pervade the mise-en-scène.

Instead of taking aim at high society and the seedy underbellies of bleak urban areas, this jaunty production dissects the social hierarchy inherent in high school. Floating through the cliques and stereotypes of high school (the Rubik’s-cube-wielding brain, the vampy theater queen, the bully with a Mustang and a violent case of roid rage – if you’ve been to high school, you know the cast of characters), Brendan gets lost in the mystery surrounding Emily’s disappearance – and, due to a palpably tense atmosphere, so does the audience. Brick knows what it is, and it may not transcend its boundaries, but it does what it knows very, very well.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt departed from sitcom-land when Third Rock from the Sun ended five years ago and has rocketed to indie stardom with audacious and astounding performances in 2001’s Manic and last year’s Mysterious Skin. In a heavily stylized performance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt imbues Brendan with a roguish know-how; his hands often remain in his beige jacket with his shoulders held high, as if a cold chill is perpetually blowing over him. Gordon-Levitt is in nearly every frame, and he deftly drives this joyride. The femme fatale, disguised as the needy popular girl, Laura, is portrayed by Nora Zehetner (think a more adorable and intelligent Rachel Bilson from The OC who is more sexy, dangerous, seductive and less…on The OC).

The vernacular of the film is a clever mélange of high school jargon and hardboiled noir shtick. While probing the student body to glean information from his peers, Brendan inquires who his ex-girlfriend has been eating lunch with – and instead of leaving a business card or an office address, he utters with a straight-face: “If you find her, tell her where to meet me – she knows where I eat lunch.” After Brendan gets beat up, which is a common occurrence in the few days this film chronicles, he cunningly tells the angered principal, “he tried to take my lunch money,” and then his blank expression evolves into a slight smirk before he quips, “it’s a good thing I brown-bagged it.”

Most surprisingly, Brick has a slick sense of humor; it’s all refreshingly self-aware and deliciously ironic. Essentially, it is as if the genre itself accidentally stepped into a time warp and there are deliberate, and amusing, anachronisms which did not translate well in a dramatic sense. Replace the cigarette and a glass of gin with a cookie and a glass of apple juice. These toddler treats are served, not by the mysterious butler, but the gentle and congenial mother of the teen drug kingpin of the town. Even the hazardous rendezvous points are scribbled on notebook paper, resembling a note which was passed around a classroom underneath the teacher’s nose. Disclosing all its clever visual details and pizzazz would be shameful, however, so I will pause there.

The novelty of the premise may begin to wear in the last act, but – despite a few lame twists – the film has enough brilliant moments to compensate. The film’s alluring visual style is mesmerizing, yet this is not a simple case of style vs. substance; it’s an incident where the style is the substance. Although it occasionally dips into amusing parody, Brick maintains a serious veneer, and some audience members may find it a bit overbearing. The setting is, of course, in a contemporary Orange County high school. Some over-the-top moments may prompt one to think “But…they’re just in high school, shouldn’t they be going to class or doing their homework?” This reaction is understandable, but rather irrelevant; any fan of the film noir genre will know that it is hardly grounded in realism. The most crucial aspect Brick, however, is whether it captures the essence of classic film noir successfully and still manages to thrill a young audience. I must say, with the arrival of this pitch-perfect homage -- which has a few of its own tricks up its sleeve -- it appears as if Rian Johnson and his cast clearly did their homework.

10 Comments:

  • It's good to see you writing again.

    I think this is opening next week here in San Diego--I'm really looking forward to seeing it. I'm generally a fan of the teenage updates of Shakespeare, so...

    By Anonymous jesse, at 9:04 PM  

  • Yeah, I almost wrote that 10 Things I Hate About You is my guiltiest pleasure, and is one of the best films of 1999, but I felt that would be straying too much from my point (and I was not sure if I wanted that published -- hehe).

    I, however, am not a fan of "O" or "Romeo + Juliet".

    By Blogger Nick M., at 9:26 PM  

  • I adore O--one of my favorite films, actually. It was actually that and not Shakespeare's play that inspired my RT moniker.

    I like ROMEO + JULIET too, though it's not a favorite or anything. The one I really want to see is Ethan Hawke's HAMLET.

    The thing about SHE'S THE MAN is that "Twelfth Night" is my favorite Shakespeare play, but the trailers look so god-awful.

    By Anonymous jesse, at 1:02 PM  

  • This is a really good review, so much so that it almost makes me want to watch the film again.

    But I have to disagree with you on Nora Zehetner's performance. Yeah, she's beautiful, but her delivery was weak. Especially in the closing scenes.

    By Blogger Ali, at 2:31 PM  

  • I just read your comments and I don't believe you're insane for disliking it (I could easily see someone being turned off by its self-consciously hip style and "novelty"). Frankly, you have my sympathy; I had an absolutely blast watching the film. I caught onto the film's wavelength and the self-aware moments kept me from even recognizing it as a "gimmicky" conceit (which, I hardly believe it is -- the transformation of setting really exposes the disgusting social atmosphere of high school here).

    If it did not work for you the first time, though, I don't believe you'll get much more out of a second experience with it.

    Oh, and I never praised Zehetner's performance -- I really just noted that she played the 'teenage' version of the femme fatale.

    By Blogger Nick M., at 6:28 PM  

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