(2006) *** 1/2 R
110 min. Focus Features. Director: Rian Johnson. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Nora Zehetner, Emilie De Ravin, Noah Fleiss.

With Brick, writer-director Rian Johnson blends noir classic The Big Sleep, neo-noir Chinatown, and the quirky teen mystery of Twin Peaks. A diner named "Coffee and Pie, Oh My" signals Johnson's Lynchian goal of tasty humor with a bitter chaser, taken black. If some find his style repellent—Johnson mainlines plot and dialogue—many will walk out jonesing for their next fixes.

In the So-Cal teenage wasteland of a seamy high school, a girl (Emile de Ravin of Lost) goes missing and presumed dead. Her ex-boyfriend Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) cannot help her, but can't let it go, can't help but descend into the shadows in pursuit of the unattainable young woman (those shadows are especially deep and foreboding, thanks to cinematographer Steve Yedlin). A private dick led by a woman: it's Philip Marlowe all over again.

Johnson understands how the "drama" of high school fits the existential social resistance of noir. "I don't like being told whose side I'm on," says rebel Brendan. "You better be sure you want to know what you want to know," warns a teen femme fatale (Meagan Good). Brendan shares an unspoken social contract with his nerdy confidential-informant man-on-the-blacktop The Brain (Matt O'Leary). Brendan gets needed information; The Brain just feels needed.

Willfully complicated by Byzantine plotting, Brick is most satisfying when Johnson contrasts his setting to his style, as when shrewd assistant vice principal Gary Trueman (Richard Roundtree) discusses terms with Brendan or Lukas Haas' dead-eyed drug kingpin suffers the cheery hospitality of his doting mother. The actors play it with poker-faces, but the further we go into the noir territory of hard-boiled, fast-paced dialogue and dames wrapped in crimson and black, the more ticklish Brick gets.

[For Groucho's interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, click here.]

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