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Watching

Video Digest: April 13, 2006

"Its greatest asset--its dialogue--is even hard to understand at times, delivered as it is by mumble-mouthed teens throwing punches and hopped up on drugs."

Teenagers are all talk. That’s why the best high school movies are so quotable—The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Clueless, Donnie Darko. Though Brick isn’t as good as those films, it is chock-a-block with one-liners, all delivered with the calculated clip of an old Bogart movie. Words like “shamus” and “duck soup” get batted about like new hip-hop slang, and, if nothing else, Brick is original: a detective story that jumbles the film noir aesthetic of smoking guns and dangerous dames with the teenage realities of homeroom and curfew.

Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brendan Frye is a loner who infiltrates the high school underworld after his drugged-up, mascara-smeared ex-girlfriend takes a powder. This places him on the ass-end of several beatings, and kudos to the makeup designer for finding so many ways to make his pretty face bleed. The problem I have with Brick is the same problem I have with the movies it mimics—classics like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity—which is to say, the film is clever, stylish, and empty (even boring). Only in this case, the private dick is wearing Target clothes and being hauled in by the assistant vice principal. Whether that appeals or offends may depend on your tolerance for irony and homage.

Gordon-Levitt is best known as the kid on 3rd Rock From the Sun, and he’s smartly chosen the art-movie road less traveled by French Stewart. Gordon-Levitt isn’t perfect as Brendan—not quite brooding enough, a bit soft to be hiding all those edges—but he pulls off the character’s sarcasm. After one beating, he deadpans to the authorities: “He asked for my lunch money. Good thing I brown-bagged it.”

Brick’s best moments goof on the absurdity of suburban kids playing knuckle-cracking wise guys. In one classic scene, Brendan meets the Pin—as in, the Kingpin, a creepy 26-year-old cripple and drug dealer played by Lukas Haas—and the duo scheme at the dinner table while the Pin’s mom searches the fridge for Tang. (In another scene, the Pin and Brendan sensitively discuss J.R.R. Tolkien.) But the film never seems more than these cool, funny moments strung together with an unbelievable plot. Brick’s greatest asset—its dialogue—is even hard to understand at times, delivered as it is by mumble-mouthed teens throwing punches and hopped up on drugs. Maybe that’s an asset, as it requires repeat viewings. But I wouldn’t watch it again without the ability to rewind—or fast-forward.

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