So 2006's "Brick," a recent neo-noir cult classic, is a breath of freshly cigarette soaked air, acting as a high school movie where angst is replaced by a whodunit, where shallow conversations become heavily witty battles of words, where gumshoes of the Philip Marlowe merit are characterized not as cynical, alcohol infused cynics but as spry, shaggy haired loners. It takes the tackiness of an homage and turns the stale into the crisp - it emits ingenuity, tickling our noir familiar senses until breathing becomes a difficulty. It is, for the most part, a descendant of "Murder, My Sweet" disguised as a high school movie, delightful until it isn't anymore.
The film follows leading character Brendan Frye's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigation of the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend (Emilie De Ravin), who, only moments before her murder, called him in a rambling, disconcerting panic. As "Brick" is a film with more in common with "The Big Sleep" than "Clueless," an assortment of colorful characters may or may not be involved, ranging from modern-day, teenage femme fatales (Meagan Good, Nora Zehetner) to eccentrics with a taste for young age crime (Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss).
Like all character based, labyrinthine film noir, "Brick" is not as concerned with murder as it is with dialogue - it retains interest not from the center mystery itself but through the way its characters interact, trading barbs like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall like it's their day job. Toward the last act, the film loses itself in its insistence to maintain authentic noir style, and we wish it would stop beating around the bush - one would rather simply solve a murder than skirt around and around exchanges for centuries - but, for most of its length, I found myself enchanted, in part to the mesmerizing performances of its cast and the dedicated direction of Rian Johnson, who made his filmmaking debut here.
Levitt makes for an agreeably quirky protagonist, his tension ridden acting style well-suited for this sort of material - and the women of the film, most notably Good and Zehetner, give "Brick" its backbone, spinning a web of sexy deception as equally penetrative as Claire Trevor ever could. Johnson doesn't so much depend on the stylistic cues the Wilders and the Siodmaks built all those years ago as he does match them in tone. He captures the spirit of noir without copying it - the convergence of the high school movie and the 1940s crime film works surprisingly well.
I suppose I'm not as head over heels in love with "Brick" as many of the members of its devoted cult following are - I find its flourishes to eventually grow tiresome - but it is undeniably unique, so much so that I'm sure there won't be an indie movie so completely its own to be released for at least another five years. Few risky filmmaking exercises work; thankfully, "Brick" does.