Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brick Is An Intriguing, Incongruous Mash-Up

"Synergy" is a funny word. Business types love to use it when describing potential mergers, but while the term lends panache, it doesn't always impart understanding. Basically, if a combination of two-or-more entities yields more value together than separate, you can call that combination synergistic. Think chocolate and peanut butter, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, a lazy Sunday afternoon and a good paperback. All are synergistic. My wife's inexplicable habit of replacing the "j" in "pb&j" sandwiches with pickles and mayonnaise? Not so much. Of course, even odd-sounding unions can work if their fundamentals fit together well. Consider Rian Johnson's Brick, a thriller that melds hardboiled with high school.

Brendan can tell you that lunch is hard. No one really trusts him after he brought his high school's administration down on Jerr for dealing, not the stoners or the jocks or the social climbers. Brendan doesn't really mind. He's happy eating alone and chatting every once in a while with the Brain, a Rubix-cube-solving outcast with more mental power than half the school combined. Or at least he's happy until he gets a phone call from Emily, an ex-girlfriend who dumped him for a shot at the society scene and fell hard into junkie life when she failed to land on the upper rungs. Em is frantic, spouting about the brick and the Pin and all sorts of other stuff Brendan doesn't understand. Then she turns up dead in a storm sewer. Now Brendan is on the hunt for the killer, and it's a search that'll leave his hands more than a little dirty.

The thing to ask of any unconventional mash-up is how well it works, and Brick mostly excels. Johnson draws parallels between student slang and underworld jive, criminal subcultures and youthful cliques, administrative hierarchies and the long arm of the law, the iconic femme fatale and the unreachable adolescent beauty. The film unspools seamlessly for much of its running time -- much, but not all. As Brick progresses, it grows darker, more brutal, and the educational setting seems increasingly incongruous. Not to say Johnson hasn't told a cracking good crime story, full of poignancy and subtlety. That's quite true. But in the end when the guns come out and the blood starts flowing, high school seems the wrong place in which to situate the story.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Jack_Tempest)


Loren Eaton said...

For those of you given to celebrating small triumphs, this is the six-hundredth post to ISLF. Huzzah!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

One other thing Brick excels at: "Buffyspeak." Joss Whedon's Buffy was successful in part in that it crafts dialog that is self-consciously artificial (and gloriously so), yet obviously evokes the patterns of high school students. This way it avoids the grimace-worthy mistakes of so many bad writers trying to capture "authentic" grade-school dialog, still retains its tether to the reality of high school social environments, and provides an extra jolt of joyously warped language. (As Buffy in the comic books, confronted with future slang, puts it: "Wow. The English language really went to pot. I should have treated it nicer.")

In Brick, of course, the artificiality is specifically evocative of Noir cinema, but I still think the combination of obvious literary artifice + recognizable social setting is a valid one. It charts a middle path between words-about-words metaliterary games and needlessly boring naturalism.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, the dialogue in Brick is quite good, if a bit rapid-fire. I actually watched the film with the subtitles on so I wouldn't miss any of it. Turned out to be a good decision!

Loren Eaton said...

Another thing I loved about Brick but only halfway alluded to in the review: its tactfulness. Sure, it gets bloody at the end, but almost all of the violence happens offscreen, and it's so artfully done that it hits harder than if Johnson had simply thrust it in our faces.

Unknown said...

I <3 "Brick" so, so much. I even like the way it splinters a bit at the end; the incongruous juxtaposition just makes it more enjoyable to me.

I think it earns the right to get dark; not every "funny" movie can, but when they do, they tend to be my favorites.

Loren Eaton said...

I didn't have a problem with it getting dark, per se. The climax just felt like a bit of stretch for high schoolers to find themselves in. Still, I found the film quite enjoyable. Wonder if Johnson's follow up, The Brothers Bloom, is any good.