2 stars (out of four)
The hard-bitten language in writer-director Rian Johnson's debut feature, a noir mystery in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler set in the high school hallways and highways of Southern California, is challenging to follow, at best.
In "Brick," "gum" means "to mess things up," "heel" is "to walk away from," "jake" stands for drugs, and "yeg" is just another word for "guy."If this yeg doses bad jake and gums it, I'll heel him.
Though steeped in the social strata of SoCal high school life, where who you eat lunch with says all anyone needs to know about your place in the world, "Brick," winner of Sundance's prize for originality of vision, isn't much concerned with the realism so en vogue in indie drama today. And it's not in any way related to the booming teen genre, that bounty of quick wit and short skirts that a newbie less focused than Johnson may have mistakenly cashed in on. (I can just imagine that pitch: "Think 'American Pie,' but with Jason Biggs as Humphrey Bogart!")
But refreshing as his originality of vision is, Johnson's unwavering dedication to impenetrable dialogue and noir fiction is also his own worst enemy, hemming us into a story that, while fascinating to listen to, isn't much fun to watch.
The uniquely talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt (formerly of "3rd Rock from the Sun" and more recently Gregg Araki's critical hit "Mysterious Skin") plays Brendan, a tough intellect and self-imposed loner who gets pulled into the teen fray when his ex-girlfriend Emily, in an undisclosed dire situation having something to do with a brick, begs for help.
Don't let his 90210 name fool you -- Brendan is a natural gumshoe, navigating his way around the drug- and gun-savvy high school underground with the help of his only confidant, The Brain (Matt O'Leary), and sniffing out clues from various untrustworthy hangers-on, including a rich girl with confused allegiances, the conniving drama club seductress and the assistant vice-principal, played gamely by Richard Roundtree.
Brendan eventually gains entree into Emily's secret world through The Pin, a teenage drug kingpin who lives with his Tollhouse-cookie-baking mother, wears a black cape and walks with a cane (a well-cast Lukas Haas, having a lot of fun).
Johnson's definitely onto something here. He cast all the right actors, stayed true to his vision and never panders to us English-speaking lightweights. But the mystery feels elementary and his characters, though compelling as sketches, remain one-dimensional from the first to the last good-looking frame.
See, Johnson's jake of choice is style, and in the end, style over substance gums "Brick." When the closing credits roll, you'll be happy to heel it.
Written, directed and edited by Rian Johnson; photographed by Steve Yedlin; production designed by Jodie Tillen; music by Nathan Johnson; produced by Ram Bergman and Mark Mathis. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, April 7. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (violent and drug content).
Brendan -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Emily -- Emilie de Ravin
The Pin -- Lukas Haas
The Brain -- Matt O'Leary
Laura -- Nora Zehetner
Assistant VP Trueman -- Richard RoundtreeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun