Having recently graduated from a Southern Californian high school myself, I can assure you that no one referred to people’s faces as “mugs,” and boys never called themselves “cads” — at least not in earnest. But this is exactly how high school students speak in writer-director Rian Johnson’s “Brick,” a film set in a contemporary and typically-bland Southern Californian suburb (think San Clemente). Johnson has ambitiously fused classic film noir — hence the anachronistic dialect and lexicon — with cliched high school drama. And while this unexpected combination won “Brick” an award for originality of vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the merger was not exactly seamless.
“Brick” follows the story of bespectacled lover-in-mourning-turned-private-dick Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he delves into an underworld of drugs and thugs to figure out who killed his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin, the pregnant girl on TV’s “Lost”). Gordon-Levitt, true to his magnificent performance in Gregg Araki’s disturbing “Mysterious Skin,” turns out a worthy performance.
But Brendan, like the rest of the cast, fails to fully come alive. There is something disingenuous and unbelievable about a high school student who wears clunky, scuffed-up dress shoes befitting a middle-aged man and says things like “I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” Brendan is a brooding loner who keeps to himself behind the school portables, but is impossible to intimidate and is cool enough to make a point of putting away his glasses before beating up the football star without looking ridiculous (he packs a mean right hook, too).
While intriguing, his character is an example of where Johnson’s fusion experiment begins to fall apart at the seams. The decision to stick with the 1930s crime argot keeps the audience from ever being able to identify with or believe in the characters. The urgent, authoritative phrase “you know where to find me” has become “you know where I eat lunch.”
The mystery leaps into action when Brendan receives a cryptic phone call from Emily — who dumped him to hang out with the popular “upper-crust” kids — asking for his help. And when she ends up dead just two days later, Brendan enlists the help of his friend The Brain (Matt O’Leary), who wears coke-bottle glasses and solves Rubik’s cubes in under a minute, to help him piece together the events surrounding Emily’s death.
Red herrings and plot twists abound, and Johnson plants cryptic clues that are as puzzling to the characters in the film as they are to the audience. And like any good detective story, these tantalizing hints culminate in an equally cohesive and interesting ending.
Along the way, Brendan runs into the usual suspects — femmes fatales embodied in the school drama queen and the token rich girl, muscly thugs and potheads — all of whom lead the high school gumshoe to the Pin (Lucas Haas). The Pin (short for “kingpin”) is a wiry, falcon-crested-cane-wielding drug lord who, at 26, still lives with his mother. Haas’ wide-eyed, smirking portrayal of the eccentric Pin is at once suitably eerie and slightly comical.
For all of the film’s shortcomings, there are brilliant moments of genuine wit, and Johnson occasionally satirizes Southern Californian suburbia successfully and without pretension. To compensate for the oft-wooden dialogue, there are a few snappy conversations with pleasantly understated humor that let the audience know Johnson isn’t a half-bad writer after all. And, true to the film’s artistic “indie” side, the smoggy colors and wide-angle cinematography result in an impressive and deliberately bleak aesthetic. Similarly noteworthy, Nathan Johnson’s original piano-heavy score manages to avoid jazz bar sleaze and succeeds in translating the drama and suspense of noir mystery into sonic form.
“Brick” is certainly not without faults, but then again it is Johnson’s first film. And while the daring combination of noir with teenage drama is far from perfect, it at least ensures that both old-timer fans of “The Maltese Falcon” and indie film acolytes will find “Brick” most enjoyable.