When I read in multiple interviews that writer-director Rian Johnson found his inspiration for the film Brick in the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing — which with Brazil and Amadeus holds the top spot in my all-time (non-fanboy) film list — my interest was piqued. And, to be sure, Dode, Tug, and the Pin of Brick bear more than a passing resemblance to Bernie Bernbaum, the Dane, and Johnny Caspar of Crossing. (In fact, some aspects of Brick, such as the mass of flunkies waiting in the hall and Brendan’s glasses (a.k.a. Tom’s hat), seem like direct lifts from the Coens’ film.) Still, ultimately the Prohibition-era Midwest of Crossing serves as a more plausible and fertile environment for Dashiel Hammett‘s tough guys and dangerous dames than does the sun-and-drug-drenched California high school here. Brick is worth seeing — It gets points for innovation, and for having the good taste to lift from a really great movie. But it’s also slow and uneven at times, and in its worst moments is somewhat reminiscent of Bugsy Malone. In a way, Brick also reminded me of Bubba Ho-Tep — an imaginative conceit that looks great on paper, but one that loses something in the execution. (That being said, and as some AICN reviewers noted, I could see this becoming a cult hit of Donnie Darko-ish proportions, particularly among high schoolers.)
So, what’s the rumpus? Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a high school loner forced to turn shamus when, after heeling him three months earlier for the in-crowd of dopers and jocks, his former twist (Emile de Ravin) shows up on ice. With his ally the Brain (Matt O’Leary) backing his play — namely by keeping an eye on the vice-principal’s office for him — Brendan starts digging around the high school underground to see what shakes. Along the way, he encounters a couple of filles fatale (Nora Zehetner, Meagan Good), a local drug lord — with a (maltese) falcon-headed cane, no less — (Lukas Haas), and some irate muscle (Noah Fleiss) who may or may not be chiseling on the side. Will Brendan get to the bottom of it all, and find some measure of belated justice for his dead ladyfriend? Or will he gum it, and end up just another broken-hearted yegg shuffling through fourth period study hall?
If you’re a noir aficionado who enjoys watching actors Hammiett-it-up, Brick is a treat most of the time. But, to be honest, some of the kids — not Gordon-Levitt or Haas, who are both very good — stumble over the period dialogue, and when they do, the whole artifice of this enterprise is exposed. Transplanting Hammiett into high school seems like a great idea, and at times the juxtaposition is really funny: Brendan tells an untrustworthy dame “If you need me, you know where I eat lunch” and warns the asst. vice-principal (Richard Roundtree), “If you’ve got a problem with me, write me up or suspend me — I’ll see you at the parent conference.” But, in the end, I think Brick should have gone farther with it. By having so much of the story revolve around a murder, a crime boss, and a totally absurd amount of hard drugs, Johnson is kinda cheating — this story isn’t really about high school at all. Brick would’ve been more satisfying, I think, if Brendan had just ended up navigating the interstices among high school social cliques as Tom Reagan does the Irish and Italian mob in Crossing. (Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War comes to mind as a template for how that might’ve worked.) But in having teenagers speak in Hammiett’s argot, while in no way acting like teenagers, Brick ends up feeling more like a pastiche or a film school exercise than it really should. I’d say it’s worth seeing, but ultimately Brick feels more clever than it does entertaining, and, all in all, I ended up admiring the attempt made here more than actually enjoying the film.