Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has discovered the dead body of his ex-girlfriend. Looking to uncover what happened to her, he hides the body and starts a hunt for clues. Combing the underbelly of his high school, Brendan finds himself in deep with femme fatales, teachers, vamps, stoners, and crime figures who all want to thwart his investigation. Brendan, with nothing to lose, will stop at nothing to find his answers.
The gimmick found in Rian Johnson’s “Brick” is transplanting the hard-boiled film noir genre of the 1940s to the modern day high school. Admittedly, it’s a neat idea, but the ingenuity found in “Brick” in constipated by a lack of directorial confidence, and frankly, a decent budget to match its lofty ambitions.
“Brick” is a moody little film, punctuated with bursts of goofy violence. Mostly though, it’s a deliberately paced picture looking to pay homage to the great detective fiction (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler) and cinema of yesteryear with its own variety of slang and settings. One of the more controversial elements of the film has to be Johnson’s screenplay, which invents its own sticky wordplay to spice up the drama. Think of Fenster from “Usual Suspects” if he had a 3rd period chemistry class, and that’s getting close to Johnson’s design. Meant to put a distinctive stamp on the film, the dialog grows increasingly tedious and manufactured, especially when the locations don’t match the same sense of fantasy. The cast can spit the words out with minimal hiccups, but the lines feel meaningless dropping off their heavy tongues, and everything sounds clouded under the heavy blanket of the picture’s uneven sound recording.
Johnson is never able to transcend the high school gimmick either. The director fails to make the school a character in the film, instead keeping it as a dull gray background to Brendan’s “Veronica Mars” brand of journey, and only includes one faculty member (Richard Roundtree), a character he does nothing interesting with.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is certainly an intense actor (“Mysterious Skin”), but here as Brendan, the actor is too insular, giving Johnson little to work with. Gordon-Levitt is intended to be the Jake Gittes of the film, stumbling around, falling into beatings and trouble with every passing hour. Johnson can’t find the core to Brendan, discouraging the audience from curiosity about his thought process. Perhaps the whole film is miscast, teeming with young actors (Meagan Good, Nora Zehetner) who clearly didn’t do their Bogart/Bacall homework beforehand, and a crime boss called “The Pin” played by Lukas Haas. I can’t think of a single actor with less screen menace than Lukas Haas, who drifts through the film looking ridiculous trying to channel his inner pimp.
“Brick” certainly wins points for trying to create something interesting with old recipes, and when Johnson lets the fists fly there’s a kooky spark to his scenes of brawling. Johnson’s vision is simply lacking a pulse, and when “Brick” finally heats up to a finale, it’s already deflated and finished.Rating: C-