Rian Johnson's sufficiently clever Brick is a detective thriller about a murdered blonde and the reason she got murdered in the first place. But there's a twist: She's a high school girl, and the people wrapped up in her dirty little affairs are also high school boys and girls ... sort of like Peanuts, all (or almost) grown up.
As postmodern cinema goes, Brick is a surprisingly organic genre-blender. It's Sam Spade meets Saved by the Bell, and, despite its murder, mayhem and melancholy, I'm happy to say that it left a big fat smile on my face.
The detective of the piece is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a "good kid" who doesn't give his vice principal any (or much) trouble. He's a brooding loner, and he's still in love with Emily, his ex, who turns up dead. There's no time to see the guidance counselor: Brendan has a mystery to solve. The movie's title is both a clue and a MacGuffin, although the biggest secret in Brick is the one a girl can only tell her best girlfriend.
Johnson would need to rewrite only a few lines to cast his movie with grownups. But film noir is 50 percent metaphor anyway, so why not have it be a metaphor for the treachery of high school? At times you're likely to forget these are kids, or else you'll remember and just not believe it. That's OK. You're not supposed to, no more than you're supposed to believe the convolutions and ultra-cool of The Maltese Falcon or Body Heat.
What's so much fun in Brick is watching Johnson remind us of where we are by lacing the periphery of his action with touches of high school cliché. There's the play rehearsal ("Should I actually kiss her here?" the boy asks, reaching for the girl), the emphasis on whom you're having lunch with (social circles matter ... Brendan eats alone), and an ironic call for the dreaded "show of hands."
"Do you read Tolkein?" asks the drama's heavy (Lukas Haas), whom the others call "old" (he's, like, 26). The Pin (short for Kingpin) brings this up in the middle of a shadowy dialogue with Brendan about the mounting danger of their extracurricular activities. In the brief literary analysis that follows, Johnson reminds us again: "His descriptions of things are really good, he makes you want to be there." How many times has that been the best an English teacher could get out of her students?
If Johnson finally outsmarts himself, it's only because this sort of low-keyed high concept only works for so long. The acting is sufficient, with Gordon-Levitt most effective at noir-hip and intensity, but less so when Brendan turns quiet and morose (it takes a gifted actor to ignite the void of silence). And Johnson is a clever director: For example, he photographs shoes well, and he uses the sound of them on pavement to execute one of his better brutal jokes.