Friday, May 19, 2006

FINAL CUT: There's This Movie, See? And It's About Teenagers, See?

The summer blockbuster season has begun in earnest on Friday. The release of Mission: Impossible III heralded the arrival of all the things Hollywood holds so dear: big stars, outrageous stunts, mammoth explosions, the works. Poseidon followed closely on its heels, promising huge stunts, loud noise, and the introduction and eventual death of hundreds of fictional characters. After that, we've got arcane religious mysteries this week, followed by a mutant war next week. Thrills and chills, excitement and's the time moviegoers live for.

So naturally, me and the wife went to see Brick.

I have been trying for a couple weeks now to think of how to sum up the pleasures of this charming little film. Evidently, I've come up dry, because I've decided to lead with the same thing that every review has: the premise. It's a lame start, but it's essential to understanding what makes Brick so unusual and so delightful. But here it is: Brick is a film noir, complete with swift and brutal violence, a dangerous femme fatale, and the requisite smart, rapid-fire dialogue.

Oh, and it's set in a modern-day high school in Southern California.

That setup has the word "gimmick" written on it in 30-foot-high letters. And I suppose, in the final analysis, it is. No one makes movies like the noir classics of the 1940s, and certainly nobody talks anymore like the characters in those movies, especially not in high school. (Probably no one really talked like that then, either.) So the whole movie is dependent on an audience's willingness to accept what on face value looks more absurd than the most outlandish fantasy film.

But the true test of a gimmick is what you do with it. If all you have is the gimmick, you aren't going to get very far. I'm reminded of the weird thriller Suture, which is predicated upon your willingness to accept that a large black man and a thin white man look nearly identical to every other character in the film. It's a leap that's hard to make. Or the charming obscurity my wife discovered, Man of the Century, whose lead character speaks in the patter of a 1920s dandy, despite the fact that he is surrounded by a very real, turn-of-the-millennium New York City. It's silly, but the disparity between the two worlds is more distancing than absorbing. The whole movie is in irony quotes.

Herein lies the glory of Brick: you recognize the gimmick, but even at its most obvious, you don't question the integrity of the story. All the credit for this achievement deservedly goes to writer-director Rian Johnson, who chose a remarkably difficult task for his first film, and pulled it off. The movie sounds and feels just like it stepped out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, and hits with the same wallop.

Perhaps the movie's finest scene is the one the best illustrates the conceit of the film: our hero, a slacker named Brendan (in the person of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who truly deserves to have reviewers stop mentioning his old TV credits), is dragged away from his investigation of the diaappearance of his ex-girlfriend to take a meeting with the vice-principal (Richard Roundtree, channelling every gruff-black-police-chief character of the past 25 years). What follows the classic verbal showdown between detective and cop, a fast-talking battle of words that goes beyond parody and manages to measure up to the real thing. I was laughing out loud at this point, a little bit because it was funny, but mostly because it was just fun. It's been a long time since I watched a movie where you could actually tell that the people making the movie were enjoying themselves. Brick is filled with that sense of joy.

A little further mention of Gordon-Levitt is in order. The cast takes to the tricky language with varying degrees of success. On the plus side is Matt O'Leary as the requisite source of information. Less successful is Nora Zehetner, who doesn't quite give off the sense of danger that the script ascribes to her. But the whole movie really rests on Gordon-Levitt's shoulders, and he's completely worthy of the task. I'm reminded of Johnny Depp's unsavory origins on television, and how he overcame them by choosing projects to his liking and basically satisfying his own muse. Gordon-Levitt seems to be picking roles in a similar manner, and if he sticks to it, and if Hollywood can figure out how to make use of that, he could eventually be just as big as Depp, and certainly as good an actor. Just a little prediction for you to check up on in 15 years.

Brick did something relatively unusual in movies these days. Lots of movies make me laugh. A few make me cry. A surprising number make me think. Brick, however, made me satisfied. I had an experience, and though the film (in true nor fashion) does not tell a happy tale, I walked out of the theater very pleased.

That's a lot to ask for these days.