Bright Lights Film Journal

When Portentous Met Pretentious: Rian Johnson’s Brick

“I’ve got all five senses and eight hours’ sleep! Don’t fuck with me!”

“The trouble with making movies is that by the time you’re old enough to make them, you don’t want to make the kind of movies that made you want to make movies in the first place.”

So said Jean-Luc Godard, but M. Nouvelle Vague doesn’t always get it right.1 A case in point is writer/director Rian Johnson’s first feature, Brick, a meticulous regurgitation of virtually every noir cliché ever filmed, pumped through the unformed psyches of suburban high school students enjoying the eternal summer of LA-LA land, California. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the shy, sensitive Brendan, who faces down drug dealers and vice principals, beats the crap out of football players, and then takes a fearsome beating himself as he searches for the “truth” — the truth about the death of his fucked-up former girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Brendan finally does learn the truth, though only because the rest of the cast obligingly tells him everything he needs to know.2

There isn’t a surprise in sight as Brendan cruises the mean streets of Orange County, usually in a sleek vintage T-Bird belonging to femme fatale Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner). At every moment, one has the sensation of being trapped in the brain of a wimpy, seventeen-year-old English major, thinking of all the cool things he would say if only he could think of them at the time, and how cool it would be if he were really good at karate and could kick the ass of big-mouth football players. Pow! Try walking away from that one, hot shot! Pow! Pow!

Somehow, this stack o’ kitsch won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision in 2005, truly bizarre in the case of a film whose whole point seems to be its deliberate, not to say obsessive, lack of originality. The Sundance jury wouldn’t be made up entirely of aging wimpy high school English majors, would it? Perish the thought!

Afterwords

Despite the pathetic plot, pedestrian visual style, and abysmal, “hard-boiled” dialogue,3Brick has more direction than half the big-budget flicks that come out of Hollywood. It’s a strange affirmation of the auteur theory. Brick is so bad that the audience frequently cracks up at its sheer stupidity, but this film was still made to make an impression, not just to make money, something you can’t say about, oh, Thirteen Going On Thirty, Along Came Polly, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve ….

  1. Think of all the mean things he’s said about the U.S., for example. []
  2. This “plotting” is in itself a classic noir cliché. It’s hard enough to come up with a coherent plot, and twice as hard to explain how the hero could figure it all out on the basis of a few clues. So much easier to have “colorful” characters fill the dude in, even though they have no motive for doing so. []
  3. Does Rian Johnson eat Raymond Chandler’s shit for breakfast? Could be! []