Sunday, June 25, 2006

Movie Review: "Brick"

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O'Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Richard Rountree
Directed by Rian Johnson

Official Web site

One would have to imagine the marketing people entrusted to promote “Brick,” writer/director Rian Johnson’s attention grabbing mystery, had their work cut out for them. For one, the movie is a film noir, closely patterned after the classics starring Humphrey Bogart in the 1940s – not the most popular genre going right now. Then, Johnson chose to set the movie in a modern day Southern California high school, with teenagers filling out the cast. Most younger audiences are likely unfamiliar with movies like “The Maltese Falcon” and the writings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, by which it’s obviously influenced. And adults might see an almost all-teen cast and think they’re in for a couple of hours of bad acting and a dumbed down script. But thankfully, they would be wrong on both counts.

If anything, the adults might be the ones that feel dumb as they try to wrap their heads around the fast, tough and fairly byzantine talking passing over the lips of these high schoolers, for whom homework seems the least of their concerns. This is a film that requires patience and most of all, attention.

“Brick” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a loner who gets a disturbing phone call from his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin), followed not long after by her death. Still holding feelings for her, Brendan takes it upon himself to find out who killed her and why. Naturally, this leads to him sticking his nose in other people’s business, with many showing various degrees of resistance to his “investigation.” Not unlike the hero in other film noirs, Brendan finds several people physically persuading him to stop his snooping – not that the frequent beatings he sustains deters him.

In fact, his persistence at taking a licking and coming back for more eventually makes inroads to The Pin (Lukas Haas in a pitch perfect performance), a mysterious and eccentric drug kingpin who might hold the key to Brendan’s case. Much of the film’s dark humor emerges from scenes with The Pin, who dresses in black, walks with a cane and seems to take up residency in the poorly lit basement of his mother’s house. Oh, and he drives in a minivan with a working table lamb, if you can figure out the logistics of that. But whatever, it’s still funny to see.

In all fairness, most of the characters in the film aren’t really grounded into any modern day reality. They’re basically high schoolers plopped into a film noir setting, with only the occasional reminder of today’s technology included, such as cell phones (although Brendan still seems to make frequent use of phone booths). As such, some people may have trouble caring about anyone’s fate, as relating to them is rather difficult.

But such a limitation should be able to be overlooked for one primary reason: the movie’s hook isn’t included as a lark. While there is some humor in the story, it’s played with a straight face and that helps “Brick” immensely. The actors are all in step with the language and attitude of the film from scene one – a challenging task indeed, what with all the twisty dialogue included. Gordon-Levitt particularly impresses as the undeterred amateur gumshoe and is building quite an eclectic acting resume.

Obviously a student of film noir, Johnson shows a remarkably focused vision of the world these young adults occupy. This achievement is all the more impressive when it’s factored in that this marked Johnson’s first film.

Audiences could probably watch “Brick” several times over and not completely understand all that is being said by the characters, but few should struggle to realize that there’s some real up-and-coming talent on display here.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for violence and drug content.)

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