Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: Brick (2005)

Brick (2005)

Rated R for violent and drug content

Score: 4 out of 5

Picture, if you, will, an old-style film noir detective story from the 1930s and '40s. Hardboiled private detectives, conniving and classy gangsters, tough guys in their employ, mysterious and glamorous women with tons of secrets, flashy period dress, brassy music, speakeasies, calls at phone booths at certain hours, all that jazz. A living recreation of life on the wrong side of the tracks during and shortly after the Great Depression, at least as imagined by the Hollywood of the time. Now, picture all of the tropes and stylistic cues of those films, applied to the characters of a modern-day teen movie.

It's a lot better than it sounds.

Brick is a retro-styled detective story set in a 21st-century high school, and much of the joy of watching it is in seeing how it manages to meld two genres that seemingly have nothing in common. It's like a film version of the late, great Veronica Mars that's more serious but no less self-aware, its contemporary teenage characters speaking in old-fashioned slang and wearing outfits that, while readily identifiable as coming from modern times, bear any number of vintage touches. It freely skirts the line of ridiculousness without crossing it, writer/director Rian Johnson working hard to immerse viewers in the world he created here. The plot is serviceable, and figuring out how it all comes together makes the film worth rewatching like any good mystery, but it's not the main attraction. The style is the real star of the show here, and your enjoyment of the film will live or die on whether or not you can embrace it. It's a film of the sort that "they don't make like they used to", made in the style of the sort of films they absolutely do still make. Either way, it's a romp and a half.

Our protagonist is Brendan Frye, a somewhat dweebish outsider at his suburban California high school whose only friends are Brain, a similarly geeky kid who has a way with information, and his girlfriend Emily. Brendan has been in trouble with the law before, having once sold drugs with a classmate but gotten away clean after his friend was arrested. Emily has been missing for a few weeks now, and one day, he gets a call from her telling him that she's in deep trouble with the new crowd that she's fallen into, who are some very bad people; the next day, he finds her body in a drain tunnel. Together with Brain and the assistant vice principal Trueman, Brendan sets out to find his girlfriend's killer, leading him into a tangled web involving the school's queen bee Laura, the druggie Dode, the theater diva Kara, the jock Brad, the gearhead tough guy Tug, a bad brick of poisoned heroin, and The Pin, the leader of a small-time drug-dealing empire.

Rian Johnson knows how to make a damn good-looking movie, here looking back to classic Hollywood in how he frames and shoots his scenes. While the film is in color, at any moment I could've just as easily pictured it in black and white, such is the manner in which this film captures the feeling of its inspirations. Villains are framed in silhouette, only their faces visible. The high school and the stucco suburbia surrounding it are thoroughly deglamorized, feeling seedy underneath their outwardly respectable, middle-class surface. The score, pure piano, string, and brass, would feel right at home in an old Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney movie, albeit with a smattering of tracks by more recent bands like the Velvet Underground. Modern slang is nowhere to be seen; instead, the characters speak in the argot of the '30s and '40s. The aesthetic draws from every time period between the '30s and the '00s; cell phones exist but are rarely seen, vintage Ford Mustangs and Thunderbirds co-exist alongside '90s Chevy Astro vans, and the characters' clothes take modern fashion pieces and mix them up to emulate vintage styles, most notably with Laura's scarves and berets, The Pin's trenchcoat, and Tug's love of sleeveless undershirts. A Halloween party is used as an excuse for the characters to go all-out with the period dress. This is a film that looks and feels old-school in every way, yet manages to seamlessly blend in enough touches of modernity to make it feel timeless. In terms of emulating the style of classic film noir and bringing it into a modern teen movie, Johnson's work here is dazzling.

It's not all retro-love, however, as he and the film are self-aware enough to combine some noir and teen tropes to more humorous effect. This is most pronounced with the character of The Pin, played by Lukas Haas and the source of a great deal of black comedy. The older, all-powerful, Al Capone-inspired gangster who loves his mother, has a great sense of slick fashion, and walks with a gold-encrusted cane are realized here with a 26-year-old who's physically handicapped, wears a trenchcoat, gets driven around in the aforementioned Astro van in place of a limo, and literally runs his empire from his mother's basement. Much of the fun of watching this film is in seeing how all the other characters likewise map the stock characters of a hardboiled detective story to those of a teen movie. Brendan, our private eye hero, is a "cool loser" cut from the same cloth as Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Brain, the nerd, is the guy with all the info. Laura and Kara, the femmes fatales, are the queen bees of their social circles, wearing the most beautiful clothes and throwing the best parties. The jock Brad, the stoner Dode, and the car buff Tug fill the ranks of the various crooks who Brendan must navigate as he pushes his way to the top. Richard "Shaft" Roundtree makes a great cameo as the assistant vice principal, playing the role of the cop working with our private eye. And finally, Emily, Brendan's beautiful blonde girlfriend, is the woman with a heart of gold, the one who never should've gotten involved. It's through Emily that we learn more about Brendan, coming to realize that he isn't much of a saint either, having probably pushed Emily away from him, and into the arms of the bad crowd she fell in with, through his controlling personality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great job conveying Brendan's pain at the loss of his love, as well as the moral ambiguity that makes the viewer question whether he really deserved her in the first place, and as Brendan gets beaten up over the course of the film, Gordon-Levitt comes across as increasingly worn-out, tired, and outright injured. Haas as The Pin and Nora Zehetner as Laura are the standouts in the supporting cast, but every one of them is captivating to watch as they take turns with Johnson's dialogue and story. Gordon-Levitt may be the guy who went on to bigger things later, but everybody deserves some recognition here.

The Bottom Line:

A well-told and stylistically unique story with a great hook, Brick may be just remixing old crime movie tropes in a new-school package, but that doesn't make it any less of a treat. If you're looking for something a little more offbeat in your gangster/detective story, give it a look.

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