' Cinema Romantico: What If Bogart Ate Hot Lunch?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What If Bogart Ate Hot Lunch?

“Brick” is the first of its kind. It basically takes every old ‘40’s/’50’s noir/gumshoe movie and places it in a modern-day high school setting. There are people who may choose to say the film exists in a world unto itself but I don’t know that I necessarily agree. It feels more like a bunch of kids got to play dress-up for a day, and you know what? It works. The idea itself is ingenious and the execution is almost as good.

What sells it is every actor's dedication to maintaining a straight face throughout. This is all taken with the utmost seriousness. Even when they’re spouting some of the most glorious over-the-top dialogue I’ve heard in years, their faces keep the same look. The film reminds me of the genre I once wrote in exclusively (and still write in often) – it’s what I like to call Fiercely Sincere Tongue-in-Cheek. It’s what Johnny Depp did to such amazing effect in “Pirates of the Caribbean” a few years back. If you wink – even once – at your audience, the film wilts and dies. But no one is ever caught winking.

Joseph Gordon-Leavitt (of “3rd Rock From the Sun” fame) is Brendan - our Sam Spade or Jake Gittes, if you will. He gets a call at the beginning from his ex-girlfriend who is asking for his help. She has been missing for a month. When he finally tracks her down, she tells him she no longer needs his help and to leave it alone. She, of course, winds up dead and he can’t leave it alone. Against perhaps his better judgment, he wades deep into the muck and madness of the crime.

Much like the old-school noir films (I think specifically of “The Big Sleep”) it’s far more about the process of solving the crime than actually solving the crime. He's forever plotting with his confidante - the know-everyone-and-everything kid called The Brain. He's constantly calling and taking calls on payphones (a touch I loved). He meets up with the requisite Femme Fatale and the meddling Police Chief (in the form of the Assistant Vice Principal). He gets the crap kicked out of him by the Bad Guy's Muscle. And finally to the bad guy himself - The Pin, who is the local drug kingpin and runs things from the wood-paneled basement of his mom's house. All your favorite noir stereotypes are present. But that’s the point.

And as I mentioned earlier, all these stereotypes get to utter words invented entirely by writer/director Rian Johnson. No, you’ve never heard anything quite like it before. It’s a weird but wonderful mix of what could pass for new-fangled slang with the hard-boiled vernacular reminiscent of a Bogie/Bacall pic.

The problems arise in the third act. Up to this point the movie has merely been a stunt – albeit a clever and well-done stunt. The characters have been little more than archetypes. But at the end the movie goes for a true emotional payoff. You can’t do this when you have spent little or no time allowing us to become invested in the characters. Thus when the big twist comes you’re just kind of left with a “blah” feeling. When you're working with Fiercely Sincere Tongue-in-Cheek you either follow it all the way to the end and damn the consequences or you slice and dice a little of the tongue-and-cheek early on to help it resonate more down the line.

In spite of the finale, the film makes a true effort and is never exactly what you expect. It also shows unlimited potential for its auteur. And besides, how can you go wrong when Shaft himself is the Assistant Vice Principal?

1 comment:

Tobius F. said...

I haven't seen this movie, but I have seen Shaft. And if he personally endorses "Third Rock from the Sun," then I'll watch it.

Thanks, Cinema Romantico!