Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 08/26/06 21:31:07

"Cool, but a bit too calculatedly so."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Sure to be regarded as an instant classic by indie kids everywhere, first-time director Rian Johnsonís film Brick doesnít always have the clearest motives. Is it something of a film-noir spoof, or does it aim for straightforward noir in an unusual milieu? If the latter, is it aware that much of its plot is not nearly as impenetrable as it seems to think? Most importantly, does it know that old noir films didnít have to try this hard to be cool?

The germ of the idea is an interesting one, if nothing else. Johnson develops a standard noir plot (complete with femme fatales, shadowy figures with unknown interests, and a classic macguffin), but sets it at a contemporary high school, with teenage characters making up the bulk of the cast. (As with many films involving high school students, there does seem to be an unrealistic lack of parents and authority figures, but maybe I just hung out with the wrong crowd in school.)

Johnsonís initial execution of this gambit is, however, excruciating. Brick peppers the viewer with its conception of hard-boiled dialogue from the outset, but I canít recall seeing a film noir of the sort Johnson emulates that was so riddled with slang. Lead character Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tosses around words like ďbullĒ (referring to authority figures) and ďyegg,Ē the latter of which sounds intensely awkward every time it escapes his mouth. For the first ten minutes or so, the style hits like an anvil of pretension, slamming home the idea that Johnson has no real point and just wants to be different.

Frankly, thatís probably true, but once his creation soaks in a bit, itís a lot easier to swallow. It doesnít take too long to acclimate to most of the jargon, and Brendan is a solid noir protagonist Ė motivated by emotions he canít control, dry-witted, playing both sides, and hard to ever truly get behind. This is helped by Gordon-Levitt, who may not be Bogart but is nonetheless well-cast, delivering snappy banter and selling most of Johnsonís dialogue, which might sound too much of a put-on in the hands of another actor.

The filmís central mystery isnít nearly as tough to crack as Johnson seems to think it is, but things proceed well enough that this isnít a significant hindrance to enjoyment of the film. The interaction between Brendan and his friend The Brain (Matt OíLeary) is always played well, and Johnsonís able handling of noir archetypes even as he seems at least slightly aware that heís tweaking them is a solid entertainment. (In Brickís funniest scene, Brendan is served juice by the mother of the townís drug kingpin in a stereotypical suburban kitchen just minutes after being roughed up by a goon in the basement, an acknowledgement by Johnson of the seeming incompatibility of the plot and setting.)

Still, there are times when the film seems a little too pleased with itself; the self-conscious artiness of scenes like our introduction to Laura (as she reads from The Mikado at a party) leaves a bit of a mark on Brick that it would be better off without. The knottiness of the dialogue, in its worst moments, feels like a cover-up for a simplistic plot. When these things come together in the first ten minutes of the film, itís almost stunningly hard to watch; fortunately, this fades after a little while longer, but less determined viewers might be driven off before Brick actually gets good.

The filmís look and camerawork are terrific, suggesting that Johnsonís talents as a director outstrip his talents as a writer for the time being and that he should have a bright future behind the lens if nothing else. Thereís plenty of time for Johnson to get even better as a writer, though, and plenty to build off of; Brick may try harder than it has to at times, but it still has enough cleverness to go around.

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