Monday, May 15, 2006

Review - Brick

We’ve had Shakespeare and Jane Austin updated for modern American teenagers, so why not noir? Brick takes the hard-boiled dialogue, Byzantine plotting, laconic heroes and femme fatales which writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were famed for, and it transfers them all to a contemporary Californian High School. This neat conceit is the brainchild of first-time writer/director Rian Johnson, and his film has struck a chord with audiences already, being one of the most acclaimed films at this year’s Sundance festival.

Unfortunately Brick didn’t quite hit the mark for me. It’s a damn shame to report that a film with so many impressive elements, with so much effort gone into crafting its singular style, doesn’t add up to a hill of beans; but Brick’s gimmicky, self-consciously hip style proves to be its undoing.

Brick’s plot is a tangled web, which would be a chore to explain in any sort of detail, but here’s the briefest of outlines. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our resident gumshoe. He doesn’t look like a particularly heroic character, with his shaggy haircut and spectacles, but he’s a smart cookie with a sharp wit and the ability to both throw and take a punch. Brendan is called into action when he receives a plea for help over the phone from his distraught ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The next time Brendan sees Emily she tells him to drop it, but then she winds up dead, and Brendan remains doggedly determined to find who or what was behind her demise.

Soon Brendan finds himself immersed in a whole netherworld of drugs and murder which is lorded over by a shadowy character known as The Pin (Lukas Haas), who is something of a mythical figure amongst local teens (“he’s old, like, 26”). From here, the plotting becomes ever more dense, with twists piled upon twists until it becomes almost indecipherable. In truth, following the story is not really a prerequisite for enjoying Brick, because the surface style with which the story is told is ultimately this film’s raison d'être.

What Johnson is attempting to do with Brick is not to parody the noir genre, but to translate it faithfully into another era; and while the film is occasionally very funny, it is more successful in the way it expresses the mood and themes of the classic detective stories it's based on - the obsession, the sense of righteousness - and it admirably steers clear of the lazy, clichéd visual tropes which noir homage/pastiche films often resort to. I just wish it worked as well as it deserves to.

The first problem with Brick is Johnson’s dialogue. The patter is brusque, cool and snappy, with words fired out of the actors’ mouths like bullets. The writer/director also comes up with some dazzling lines which leap off the screen - “I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you”, Brendan tells a group of potheads - but it sounds like dialogue which was written for streetwise, world-weary characters, and it never sounds convincing coming out of these teens. Many of the young actors visibly struggle with the rhythms and speech patterns required to make Johnson’s language work, with Nora Zehetner and Meagan Good two of the most obvious casualties, and while the occasional line might make the indulgent viewer smile, too much of the dialogue is mumbled unintelligibly; too fast or too inaudible to catch.

As a result, I was lost in a haze of confusion quite early on with Brick; straining to catch a word here or there in the hope of making some sense of it all. Confusion often comes as standard with noir (think of Howard Hawk’s notoriously convoluted The Big Sleep, which perplexed even Chandler himself), but the best films in the genre can overcome such issues by giving us strong characters or a memorable atmosphere, while Johnson seems to be so enamoured with his clever dialogue and tricky direction that he fails to back it up with anything of substance.

The characters in Brick are more archetypes than real, believable people. The shady villain, the femme fatale, the know-it-all informer, the volatile brute - all these figures are present and correct. Many of them are well played, with Lukas Haas proving memorable and Matt O’Leary giving strong support as Brendan’s man with the info. But these characters are never fleshed out and seem to solely exist on the surface, making it hard to care when the various players are meeting with their comeuppance.

The notable exception is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who at least gives the film a strong central character to work around. After his astonishing performance in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin last year, this is a remarkable about-face from Levitt which displays a whole other range of acting skills. Of all the film’s actors, he seems the most naturally comfortable with the demands of the dialogue; and his overall display is charming, ambiguous and compelling. It’s another superb role which marks Levitt as the most interesting actor of his generation.

Rian Johnson, too, clearly has bundles of talent. Aside from his aforementioned ability to turn a phrase (“I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed”), his direction here is often striking, and many of the scenes are expertly staged. Johnson also handles comedy well, and a number of the film’s finest moments are the ones played for laughs, such as The Pin doing deals while his mother serves milk and cookies, or Brendan’s shouting match with his Vice Principal (Richard Roundtree) which recalls all those scenes in which a detective has it out with some stuffy DA (“if you’ve got a discipline issue with me, write me up or suspend me. Otherwise, I‘ll see you at the parent conference”). Perhaps Johnson will produce something really special in the future, when he learns to invest some heart and soul into his work, but right now his style leaves me cold.

Brick is ultimately a much easier film to admire than like. It’s as if Johnson is a boy taking on a man’s genre; and while the film may be fairly impressive as an exercise in style, it’s still a hugely frustrating and absurdly uninvolving experience. Translating noir to today’s High School kids must have seemed like a good idea in theory, but nothing in this slick but empty picture ever felt real to me. Clearly Brick is too cool for school, it’s also a good deal too cool for its own good.