April 08, 2006

MOVIES: Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006)

Brendan gets a mysterious phone call from Emily, a former girlfriend; she's in trouble, and begs him to help. With the help of his friend, a smart guy known as The Brain, Brendan investigates and finds himself caught up in a convoluted tale of drugs and murder, all of it centered on a small-time local drug lord called The Pin. There's a pair of dark-haired femme fatales (one of them a serious drama queen) who may or may not have Brendan's best interests at heart; some of The Pin's hired thugs may be out to take his place; and the authorities are utterly clueless.

Sounds like a 30s private eye flick, doesn't it? Something with Humphrey Bogart, maybe. But Brick is set in the present day, and the characters are southern California high school students. (Well, The Pin is a bit older; The Brain says, "He's real old -- 26, maybe.") They all speak in a stylized patois that combines teen slang, hard-boiled detective jargon, and a few bits of invented language; the dialogue has the rapid rat-a-tat of film noir, and some of it flies by too fast to follow (though the gist is usually clear).

The cast gets the style right, and they keep the dialogue from feeling too artificial. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas are fine as Brendan and The Pin, and their scenes together, with neither sure how far to trust the other, have a crisp tension. None of the movie's actors are young enough to be playing high school students, which is par for the course these days, but when the movie's as stylized as this, it matters less. And apart from The Pin, there are only two adult characters in the movie -- the school's vice-principal (a sharp cameo from Richard Roundtree), and The Pin's mom, who chatters on about apple juice to her son's visitors -- so the fact that the principals are older than they should be isn't as distracting.

Nathan Johnson's score is effective, with a lot of oddball instruments chosen to add to the sense that this isn't quite the world we know -- bluesy riffs played on the harpsichord, melodies clattered out on cowbells.

I don't think that Brick is much deeper than its central gimmick, and like a lot of private-eye stories, it's impossible to make coherent sense of it (when The Big Sleep was adapted for the screen, even Raymond Chandler was famously unable to explain exactly who had committed one particular murder, and he wrote the damn book). But that gimmick is played out with great flair, and even if the story falls apart in retrospect, it's entertaining while it's happening.

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