Saturday, January 24, 2009

Queue It Up: Brick

[For no timely reason whatsoever, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

One of the cleverest films in years begins with the dead body of a teenage girl lying in an irrigation ditch. Her ex-boyfriend crouches beside the corpse, taking in the scene. And if this were most movies, what would come next would be a cell phone call to the police and the unrolling of a lot of yellow tape. But this isn’t most movies, not by a long shot. This is Brick, the feature film debut of writer/director Rian Johnson. And so, without thinking twice, the ex-boyfriend picks up the body and hides it. Not because he’s trying to cover up the girl’s death. Because he’s trying to solve it.

The ex-boyfriend is Brendan. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he has moppish hair that falls over the top of his glasses and he wears a white T-shirt that’s often covered up by an equally featureless gray jacket. Brendan appears completely unremarkable, but look closer and you’ll notice that he casts a shadow reminiscent of guys like Sam Spade and Jake Gittes. Guys who have tight hairdos topped by fedoras. Guys with crisp clean suits and rough knuckles. Guys with a cigarette ever-dangling from their lips. Cool guys.

The difference is that Spade and Gittes operated in the 1930s, an era in which we imagine that all gumshoes walked and talked like Humphrey Bogart. Brendan is a typical teen in the concrete jungle of modern day Southern California. In such an unromantic time and place, we hardly expect Brendan to finish his sentences, let alone keep from punctuating every other fragment with the word “dude.” Yet Brendan fires off paragraphs of dialogue with the speed and pop of a machine gun, just like fast-talking Sam Spade. And he mixes it up with hoodlums just like Spade. And he draws dangerous women to him just like Spade. And all of a sudden it hits us that he is Sam Spade, or at least what Sam Spade would have been as a 21st Century teenager in San Clemente, Calif.

Don’t misread this. This isn’t a movie where Gordon-Levitt hams it up with silly Bogart impressions. Not at all. Instead, Gordon-Levitt becomes Bogart. And it makes sense that Brendan should live and breathe this film noir existence, because he’s surrounded by characters who drink from the same punch bowl. His nerdy friend with the knowledge and the plastic-rimmed glasses is “The Brain” (Matt O’Leary). The twentysomething drug dealer who might be behind the death of the girl in the ditch is “The Pin” (Lukas Haas). And there’s a heavy named Tug (Noah Fleiss), a shifty outsider named Dode (Noah Segan), a femme fatale named Laura (Nora Zehetner) and of course the dead girl – who comes alive in flashbacks as the damsel in distress – named Emily (Emilie de Ravin).

All of these characters are played with complete conviction, which is a tribute to the actors and to Johnson, who led his pledges through this tricky terrain. Brick operates at the very edge of credibility. One false step and Brendan isn’t the teenage incarnation of Sam Spade, he’s a teen actor mimicking Spade like a prep student playing dress-up for the high school play. The latter is fine and good, but this is shrewd. Drama teachers everywhere will leave this movie with bruised shins from kicking themselves for not coming up with this idea first, because at no time do these teens stop being teens. To the contrary, they exist in a world where all these iconic film noir theatrics are perfectly normal. Just like singing and dancing is natural to West Side Story. Just like iambic pentameter is natural to Romeo & Juliet.

And it works. Oh, how it works! One of the wittiest scenes takes place between Brendan and the assistant vice principal, played by Richard Roundtree. The assistant VP knows that Brendan is involved in something unseemly, and that he’s working out of bounds of the law (school and city). So in the real world Brendan would be suspended on the spot. But in this film noir translation, Brendan is the private dick laughing at empty threats from a lame duck police chief who knows he’s better off with a contact in the underworld rather than behind bars. Thus Brendan takes control of the meeting and tells the assistant VP how things are going to break down. Then leaves his interrogation before he’s dismissed – the old “either arrest me or watch me walk out of here” bit – topped with a “See you at the parent-teacher conference.”

Such references to actual teenage life are few – because do you imagine that Sam Spade did all his homework and ran home to mommy when he was 16? – but they are bright. Notes are slipped into lockers instead of office-door mail slots. Brendan can’t be tracked down at his favorite bar, but everyone knows that he eats lunch behind the school. And The Pin still lives at home with his mom, who doesn’t seem to have a clue that drugs and thugs go in and out her front door. This isn’t average high school life, clearly. But it’s closer to authentic than Jerry Bruckheimer ever gets.

The mystery of Emily’s death injects the film with consistent urgency. Brendan won’t stop until he finds out what happened to his old flame, and to solve the crime he’ll have to take significant risks. But the dense layering of the plot is only a fraction of the fun. Most of the enjoyment comes from watching Brick play with its form, and from picking out its influences. The Sam Spade spirit obviously reminds of The Maltese Falcon and crime writer Dashiell Hammett in general. Meanwhile, the setting evokes Chinatown, as do significant portions of the score and the fact that Brendan finds a body in an irrigation ditch and spends part of the film with a wounded nose.

Johnson adds some visual treats as well, highlighted by a scene in which Brendan reflects light off a mirror to examine the contents of a dark basement. But the dialogue is the brightest star. The film is 110 minutes long and it throbs with words, words, words. Sadly, some of them go by too quickly for our ears and brain to register, but no bother. You don’t go to the symphony to hear individual notes. You go to be moved by the crescendo. Brick plays songs we know by heart with such youthful sincerity that they feel new again.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]


The Film Doctor said...

Nice review. Brick holds up really well, and I like the way director/writer Rian Johnson is not only a huge Dashiell Hammett freak, he also had to shoot the film with a minimum of money and time. Yet, thanks to the brilliant screenplay, it scarcely matters. I also like Brendan's iconic look--the jacket, the hair, the jeans, and especially the shoes. Friends of mine have hunted for those shoes at length.

PIPER said...

Jason, I have to catch a plane but I want to come back to this. I'm excited to see what you've wrote because I personally have said that Brick is the most interesting movie I've seen in about the last three years.

Yeah, this is weird commenting but not really commenting but it's a reminder that I need to come back.

PIPER said...

First, let me apologize for the sentence "what you've wrote." Jeez...

Anyway, this is an excellent film and I love it when movies cross genres.

You're absolutely right that one false step and this movie suddenly becomes a lesser film. Only it doesn't.

The dialogue is there. And it's excellent. But the scenes as well are perfect. The first meeting with Tug. The chase down the loud outdoor hallways of school. The cookie scene with The Pin's Mom. The scenes with the girl from the theater. They are all excellent.

When someone asks me "have I seen any great movies lately" I always point them to this. It rises skyscrapers above all other stuff. Maybe that's just a commentary of my movie taste recently.

Someone told me to watch it again with the subtitles on so that none of the wonderful dialogue is missed.

Thanks for drumming this up.

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr: I have to say, I can't remember the shoes. I guess that gives me an excuse to watch this again soon.

Piper: Yeah, I really love the mood of the film. There are times it seems like it might slip out of control, but it never does. Nora Zehetner as Laura is terrific. I hope that doesn't turn out to be her best role, but it might. She's it. Thanks for the comments.

Allison said...

I like posts like these because I rely on you to lead me to movies I might normally know about. This definitely sounds like something I'd enjoy. It's on the list!

PIPER said...


Yeah, the shoes are great. I remember the shoes. A lot of stuff about the shoes.