'Brick' Flick Clicks
By Jeffrey M. Anderson Maybe it's a sign that people are breathlessly describing Rian Johnson's Brick as a teenage detective movie -- without irony.
After all, we live in a world where irony protrudes from every little surface like corkscrews. It makes us feel intelligent and superior, and in control of a world that often seems irrational and flat-out stupid.
Irony has been around for so long -- it first seeped into the detective movie in Robert Altman's great The Long Goodbye (1973) -- that it's surprising how refreshing the lack of it can be.
Which is not to say that the low-budget Brick is entirely realistic; it requires a certain suspension of disbelief to follow this band of ultra-cool high-schoolers as they exert mastery over their personal domains.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock from the Sun") stars as Brendan Frye, a smart loner, with floppy hair curling down his forehead and into his glasses. His magnificent leather shoes, sticking out from beneath cuffed blue jeans, are his only connection to his forefathers Marlowe, Spade and Hammer.
It's as brilliantly interior a performance as was his extroverted performance in last year's breathtaking Mysterious Skin.
Brendan's lonely routine is interrupted when he receives a phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin, from TV's "Lost"). She spouts a bunch of gibberish about pins, tugs and bricks, asks for his help and hangs up.
The catch is that Emily has disappeared and Brendan has very little information to proceed with. He begins poking around, talking to his contacts. The Brain (Matt O'Leary) is the library/computer expert who spends his days propping up the wall and fiddling with a Rubik's Cube; he knows a little about a lot.
The beautiful theater diva Kara (Meagan Good), who haunts the school's backstage area, feeds Brendan bits of information and slinky Laura (Nora Zehetner) does the same with a wink and a nuzzle.
Eventually Brendan finds his way to the local kingpin, nicknamed The Pin (Lukas Haas). Gaunt and gnomish, the Pin operates from a wood-paneled basement room in his mother's house, dealing drugs or whatever else students wish to buy.
Of course, every kingpin has a thug, and that's tuqued, tank-topped Tugger (Noah Fleiss).
Writer/director Johnson, making his feature debut, leads us through a labyrinthine plot to which Raymond Chandler himself would have tipped his fedora. It comes complete with red herrings, false suspects, and even the traditional scene in which Brendan finds himself the target of a random, unexpected attack.
Indeed, Brendan takes such a physical beating during the course of the film that even Ralph Meeker, who played the pulverized Mike Hammer in the classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), would wince in pain.
But like Chandler, Johnson understands that the plot is far from the biggest draw here. He etches his characters like hard diamonds, with very specific speech patterns; Brick has the cleverest, most rhythmic, most purely pleasurable dialogue since Tarantino, Sturges or Wilder -- never directly alluding to these or any other previous writers. Mainly the dialogue carefully hides or reveals various shades of the characters.
Finally, we get Johnson's accomplished visual scheme. Shot at his own former high school, Johnson uses concrete cubes and angular rooms as quasi-characters that may or may not suddenly betray and close in on our hero.
Johnson's universe is so enclosed and complete that we rarely even get a glimpse of grown-ups; these kids can take care of themselves. Most notably, The Pin's mom (Reedy Gibbs) serves juice to her son's "friends," and the great Richard Roundtree (Shaft) co-stars as an assistant Vice Principal, the friendly, but not-so friendly, authority figure who attaches himself to Brendan's investigation.
Likewise, Brick refreshingly lacks the modern world's intrusive, electronic blinking. Computers only make a small cameo, and there is little evidence of pop music, television or movies. There are cell phones, but Brendan makes most of his exchanges from an old-time phone booth.
Brendan's is a cynical universe, in which everyone protects their own, but also one in which people are concerned with more than who's dating who and who's on "American Idol." Everyone is cool, and no one is cool. It's the vision of what every high school student wishes to be.
Best of all, everyone is smart and everyone assumes that everyone else is smart. That includes Johnson and his high regard for his audience. Brick is a truly unusual achievement, and one that I expect will achieve the status of cult classic.