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Clever ‘Brick’ is fun but doesn't quite add up

1930s film noir-style dialogue put into the mouths of modern teenage kids
/ Source: The Associated Press

You’ve got to give Rian Johnson credit.

He’s taken a huge risk with his first feature, writing and directing a film that viewers will either embrace for its ingenuity or reject as a gimmicky stunt.

“Brick” is a 1930s-style film noir set in a contemporary Southern California high school (the one Johnson attended, actually, in sunny San Clemente), placing Dashiell Hammett-style patois in the mouths of angst-ridden teens.

“A body’s got a right to be curious,” rich-girl femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) coos as she tries to manipulate bespectacled outsider Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s roaming among the school’s various cliques investigating the murder of his ex-girlfriend. (Later she’ll ask him, “Why’d you take a powder the other night?” after he evades her obvious advances. Da noive of him.)

“Bulls” are cops and “gats” are guns, and Brendan is the unlikely “yeg” — or guy — who gets caught up in them. The action shifts between mundane suburban locations like tract houses and athletic fields, and determining who eats lunch where, and with whom, serves as a crucial clue.

Or as a brainy character — appropriately named “The Brain” — puts it: “Lunch is a lot of things. Lunch is difficult.”

It’s all very low-budget and high-concept, inspiring your head to want to like it more than your heart will allow. But something about this murder mystery is off-putting from the very beginning. The film’s language is so self-consciously specific it often clangs, and the actions of its characters are so unrealistic, it keeps you at arm’s length and never allows you to settle into a comfortable groove.

“Brick” begins with a body — that of pretty, blond Emily (Emilie de Ravin from “Lost”), lying face-down in the water outside an ominous-looking drainage tunnel. Brendan’s the one who finds her that way, and having received a desperate call from her the previous day — on a pay phone, no less — he becomes doubly suspicious and inspired to get to the bottom of the crime.

His search takes him to the popular kids, led by Laura; the drama geeks, led by the impossibly vampy Kara (Meagan Good in increasingly outlandish costumes and makeup); the stoners, led by the volatile Dode (Noah Segan); and finally to a shadowy figure known as The Pin, who runs a drug operation from his parents’ wood-panelled basement. (Walking with a cane with a duck head on the handle, Lukas Haas plays him as a scrawny version of a Sydney Greenstreet villain.)

In the tradition of the classic Bogart characters, Brendan’s looks in no way indicate what he’s capable of doing as he digs closer to the dangerous truth. He’s slight, fine-featured and messy-haired, perennially dressed in a simple, gray hooded sweat shirt. But he can think on his feet and he can take a punch (the frequency with which he gets his butt kicked is comical), all of which he’s willing to do for this doomed woman he loved.

Gordon-Levitt has grown up confidently from his days playing a goofy kid on the wonderfully absurd, beautifully written sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” and having learned on that show how to handle rapid-fire dialogue serves him well here.

But again, it’s hard to get a real grasp on his character or anyone else’s because none of them feel even remotely like real people; they’re more like one-note ideas that haven’t been fleshed out for sake of an elaborate conceit that’s trying desperately hard to be clever.

Johnson clearly had a good time with his first film, though: He’s crafted a high school movie where no one goes to class, no one has homework, no one’s awkward or insecure, and everyone has the most clever thing to say at just the right time.