Oh, hell, we just want to talk about "Brick," because we’re totally infatuated. At first blush, it’s easy to write off Rian Johnson‘s debut as gimmicky â€” it is. They’re high school kids, but they spout dialogue out of the hokiest 40s film noir. Locker numbers replace phone numbers, a minivan (with a lamp inside) stands in for a limo, the administration (naturally) becomes the law. The details are cute, but alone, they’d barely be enough to base a short on. What’s remarkable about "Brick," and what makes it so hugely enjoyable, is that in creating the film’s weird world, Johnson has managed to free it from the chokehold of irony.
True noir is near impossible these days â€” all of the visual signifiers that define it are so loaded that they’re near useless. You can’t have a femme fatale slink in on narrow heels, sucking on a cigarette anymore, because all that carries across is that she must have caught a late airing of "The Glass Key" the night before. Neo noir comes armed with the inevitable wink and nudge â€” in next week’s awful "Lucky Number Slevin," characters name-check films in lieu of character development (Lucy Liu stops just short of making herself a Nora Charles baby tee, but Josh Hartnett takes to a James Bond comparison a little too easily for an apparently dopey guy â€” ooh, spoiler alert). "Brick" is nothing neo at all â€” it’s a straight-faced throwback to the kind of convoluted storyline that had Howard Hawks wiring Raymond Chandler to figure out who killed Owen Taylor, only to be told that he didn’t know either. Because, after all, it’s the process of looking, and events unfolding, that was always more interesting than the wrap-up. The baby-faces of "Brick"’s plucked-from-TV cast (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, slowly freeing himself from "Third Rock from the Sun," Emilie de Ravin of "Lost," "Everwood"‘s Nora Zehetner) turn out to be well-suited to Johnson’s muttered machinations and heated declarations, because, well, when else in your life besides high school can you howl, with all angst and seriousness, "I couldn’t hack a life with you!"
There’s a gleeful enjoyment to these scenes, to the ones where Gordon-Levitt’s loner Brendan smart-asses the school’s jock aristocracy, or takes a beating just because he can’t bring himself to back down, or when Meagan Good vamps it up impossibly more in each scene until she delivering acid-tipped lines in full kabuki make-up, but what really works about "Brick" is its big, bleeding romantic heart. Even the bleakest noir, at its core, was filled with some kind of weary hope for the best, paired inevitably with the certainty that the world always disappoints.
And while we’re here â€”Jeff Feuerzeig‘s "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is also very good â€” a portrait of the artist as a manic-depressive novelty. We’re not so convinced of Johnson’s genius as a musician or an artist, and there are occasions where the regard of his "outsider" status comes across as a bit ghoulish (something he seems aware of â€” he would stop taking his medication several days before playing a show), but the kaleidoscope of browned-around-the-edges footage from Johnson’s youth and onwards is amazing, as are the interviews with his loving, long-suffering parents.