"Brick" is a contemporary film noir set among high school students in San Clemente, Calif. This makes it sound like a spoof, but for the most part the movie is deadly serious. Writer-director Rian Johnson clearly loves the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels - and the movies derived from them - far too much to monkey around with the formula.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a cool slacker whose ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) disappears after a series of mysterious, panicked phone calls to him. In tracking her down, he enlists the services of the class geek genius, the Brain (Matt O'Leary), and warily joins forces with the contentious school principal (Richard Roundtree, far from his "Shaft" days). He runs up against the drama club diva (Meagan Good); a muscle-bound enforcer (Noah Fleiss); a come-hither tease (Nora Zehetner); and the Pin (Lukas Haas, far from his "Witness" days), the local drug lord who wields a falcon-crested cane. (Falcon, as in "Maltese." Get it?)
One of the obvious antecedents for this film is Alan Parker's regrettable "Bugsy Malone," where children (and a 13-year-old Jodie Foster) played cops and robbers. "Brick" is a lot better than that film if only because it's not nearly as slick. Johnson seems to be finding his way through the movie as he goes along. Since he obviously cares about his conceit, his clumsiness is sort of endearing. Most teen pictures are so vapid and machine-tooled that they might as well have been made by 60-year-old hacks. "Brick" has the freshness that comes with trying something for the first time.
Except for the occasional cadre of cineaste savants, young audiences have virtually no connection to movies from the noir era (or from any other movie era that extends further back than a decade or so). Which raises the question: Just who is this film made for? Teens and college students may go to it for its novelty and attractive cast, but most of what Johnson builds in will sail right over their heads.
Older audiences will be quicker to spot the homages, but will they go see the movie in the first place? I can't exactly recommend "Brick" to adults without reservation. It's a nifty film game, but you don't exactly come out of it feeling like you've seen an evening's worth of entertainment. Then again, the same could be said for any number of big studio duds these days. Johnson at least has gone to the trouble of inventing, or embellishing, a neo-noir lingo for his characters to speak. Even if the eye isn't always engaged during this film, the ear is.
"Brick" might have been more interesting if Johnson didn't play things quite so straight. There's a moment when we're in the basement of the drug lord's house and everything is dark and sinister and then we're brought upstairs into the kitchen where his mother is busy fixing snacks for the boys. It's as if Sam Spade suddenly walked in on Donna Reed, and it's the one genuinely comic and original moment in the movie. It's reminiscent of David Lynch, who is a master at mixing the ghastly and the risible. "Brick" would be better with a bit more Lynch in its soul, but Johnson is his own man, and I look forward to what he comes up with next. Grade: B+
• Rated R for violence and drugs.