Saturday, September 30, 2006

Brick (2006)

Writer/director Rian Johnson has crafted a debut film that gets your attention. I can't wait to see what kind of film he'll make once he figures out what to do with that attention. I admit I'm a sucker for genre pastiches, and as these things go Brick has a killer hook -- Dashiell Hammett transferred to the world of high school. The failing of Brick isn't in the concept but in the approach; try as I might, I can't find anything within Johnson's work that bespeaks to it being about anything other than what a clever boy he is. Pastiche, if I'm not mistaken, is at its most effective meant to draw out certain truths about the styles being mashed together, to bring our attention to tropes, cliches and other details that we generally take for granted. Save for the occasional witty aside (The Pin's mom dithering about in the kitchen, for example), Brick is sorely lacking in that sort of self-awareness. I appreciate Johnson taking his material seriously, but the high-school setting brings nothing to the party except a sense of absurdity he isn't willing to indulge. What's more, Johnson's dialogue is far too precious. Now, I love noir and I love noir dialogue. Moreover, I recognize that much of the tough-guy dialogue from the '40s is, analyzed rationally, just plum silly. But even Bogart couldn't sell a line as stilted as "I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you," and with the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levvitt none of the young actors here have the necessary chops to make Johnson's dialogue sound even remotely plausible. The artificiality of the dialogue points up the artificiality of the rest of it, and it's not like there's a point to all the artifice a la The Black Dahlia. (I suppose a case could be made that it's supposed to be representative of how high schoolers adopt personas and drift through cliques as a way of handling their crazy hormone-induced emotions, but there isn't much in the film to support that.) Johnson has a good eye for visuals, and he gets another in an ever-increasing series of fine performances from JGL; neither of those assets, sadly, is able to elevate Brick beyond its status as a hollow stunt.

Grade: C


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