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NOMINEE: Original Screenplay (Rian Johnson)

Theatrical Release Date: 04/07/2006
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas

Fresh off a few festival circuit award nominations and a win at Sundance for Originality of Vision is writer/director Rian Johnson’s “Brick”.

“Brick” is a teenage film noir, where a seedy underground drug ring in Southern California (San Clemente if you want to be specific) weaves a tangled web or murder and intrigue at the local high school.

Sounds kind of like a more adult Scooby Doo episode, right? Well, I may not mean to be that harsh but I have some problems with “Brick”. And in editing this review over, you may find my rantings about as confused as I am with how to feel about the film.

First, I’ll extend some kudos to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the main character. Most people know him as the kid from the TV series, “3rd Rock From the Sun” and it can be a little jarring to see him do serious roles. I had him as one of the top actors of last year for his amazing turn in “Mysterious Skin”. He then went on to do an absurd wigger caricature in “Havoc” and here he is now in “Brick”.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance in the film is excellent and he really keeps the story and surrounding elements from devolving into more of a farce than a film noir. I hope he continues to find different and challenging roles, as I am becoming a big believer in his abilities as an actor.

The supporting cast is all fairly well done and includes a list of B and C list actors that only the more die-hard film buffs may recognize, or the fifteen people who watched the WB before its demise.

On the plus side, Nora Zehetner’s shadowy and ethereal take on her role and Lukas Haas’s quirky and almost absurdist take on his role give standout performances and help keep the film grounded in the world that is presented to the audience.

Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary and Meagan Good are good enough not to detract much and Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, plays a vice-principle trying to bust the drug ring at the school.

The only real negative among the actors is Emilie de Ravin, who plays the Laura Palmer of the story (all you Twin Peaks fans know what I’m talking about here). I like her usually and have followed her career since her turn on the WB’s “Roswell” and into the mega-hit “Lost”. In this film, her emotional outbursts are barely believable and I might have laughed if not for the fact that too often in the film, I had to pay close attention to the dialogue because of the next problem.

While “Brick” had some interesting camera and editing choices (and just as many annoying ones), the dialogue is often a bit mumbled and hard to understand. Add to that the hip lingo everyone is sporting because they know what’s what in the drug world dictionary and you have a somewhat befuddled audience.

There’s also an unusual and off-beat score that at first is unsettling but actually ends up working for the film. But like my opinion of the film, it’s something I had to think about before really weighing in on the matter.

Now as to the story itself, it’s your basic murder mystery, with a touch of high school angst and a teenage drug cartel all thrown in. It’s sort of like “The Real O.C.” meets “Pulp Fiction”, without a budget or multiple interweaving storylines. I’m not even sure what that means but it’s about as close to describing this film as I get.

I had problems believing the story and the characters because it was like watching a very good high school version of “A Streetcar Named Desire”. I’m being overly harsh but what I mean is that it was like watching good teen actors perform an adult movie. I never felt like the world Johnson created in the film was something that could really happen – at least not to that extreme.

For example, Gordon-Levitt is the protagonist and has gotten himself out of the grips of the drug-dealing circle at school. When he is pulled back into it, he justifiably knows many of the players and people he needs to pull off his plan. But he does all of it so assuredly and confidently that it’s almost like watching “Murder She Wrote”. Somehow he is the Jessica Fletcher of San Clemente. Now there’s an odd mix.

For all of this negativity and TV nostalgia, there are a lot of good things in “Brick” and I see why it won the “Originality of Vision” award. It’s completely different from all the other teen films and it was nice to see the actors given a chance to work with something more serious than “Biker Boyz” or “Havoc”, to name some of the actors’ previous horrible (but fun) productions.

I think your ability to like this film centers on two points: Do you like film noir? And can you suspend your disbelief adequately enough to watch the young actors play-act at being real-deal drug dealers?

In what is almost a full contradiction in all that I’ve been writing about in this review, I’m going to give “Brick” a 4 out of 5 for its conviction, Gordon-Levitt and Zehetner’s performances, its unique point of view and the resultant mood the film was able to create.

Still, I am having a lot of reservations giving it that high of a mark and had to sleep on it to do this review. It was difficult for me to stay on the good side of the fence and not go over into laughing at the unbelievability of the high school secret society world. I also do not like film noir and thought the whole production felt too slick and polished considering how manic real teenagers are in the real world. But still, the film left an imprint on me and I applaud Johnson’s attempt to break the typical mold.

This is more of a rent than buy, almost so you can watch this with subtitles and make sure to catch all that is being said. Heck, there was even a little booklet made for the film to define certain keywords that get used in the film. Another clear sign this isn’t a film for the casual moviegoer.

Even still with all of that being said, if you can’t suspend your disbelief, you might just end up laughing at the absurdity of the characters in “Brick” and their interactions and wrongdoings. It’s a tight rope and I only just barely fell on the right side of it. Your balance might not be the same and there’s only one way to find out.

If you think you’re a film buff, or just want to be one, check this out and see how some filmmakers try to push the boundaries of audience expectations to really give the film world a new look and feel.