Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006) One can see why the writer-director of this "high school noir" wanted to do this: the societal stratification of high school resembles the noir tiers of authority and outlaws, be they penny-ante, or high rollers. But, instead of the mooks and frails, we have the sosh's, the jocks, the drama queens, the brains, etc. Instead of the mean streets of the city, there are the sterile hallways and cold, hard walkways of the courtyards of high school (specifically, San Clemente High School--located in Richard Nixon's Elba). There's the police, but also the school administration (Richard "Shaft" Roundtree plays the vice-principal, bless him). Then there are the crimes--against society and the obligatory ones of the heart. And there's the melodrama, at its sulphurously volcanic peak in noir and high-school; everybody has their blood up and the rocket-fuel of pulsing testosterone and estrogen becomes toxic and explosive. It's amazing that anyone gets out of high school alive, let alone graduates with honors. They're the lucky few.
So, one can see why they'd do it. And there's the advantage that film noir's are traditionally the down-side of the studio system. They weren't expected to be "prestige," in fact, the cheaper, the better. So, if there's a bit of amateurishness, that's part of the charm--as with high school theatrics. Brick benefits from that, too. These are teen actor's. We're not expecting them to be too good, although there are some pleasures in the performances.
But, the amateurishness hurts. This is one of the first English language films I've had to watch with subtitles "on." Two reasons for that: the tough-as-nails patter from all parties is more exotic (and phony) than the teen-speak of Juno, and it's delivered at break-neck speed with little inflection by soft-palette actors who haven't learned to e-nun-ci-ate. You can get lost pretty quickly in all the muttered asides and rolled together phrases. One section of early, extremely important dialogue is phone-filtered on top of being delivered by a semi-hysterical character and it's undecipherable without a libretto. The lone exception is "The Pin," played by grown-up kid actor Lukas Haas with a laser-like intensity, and the costuming of Barnabas Collins.
Fortunately, Johnson has enough visual pyrotechnics to lean on, but just as he's borrowed elements of the script from Hammett, his visual style is cribbed from, of all people, Leone--all negative space and extreme proximity's. One is propelled by the occasional good idea or a visual joke that thrusts into his frame. Every punch is a hay maker. No clue is left without a tilted close-up. Johnson couldn't be more obviously visual, while being tone-deaf with the sound.
In the end, with the pro's and the con-artists, one begins to see it as the one thing it shouldn't be--precious. The effect is a bit like all those kids playing gangsters shooting marshmallow bullets in Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone. The dialogue wants to impress you with its toughness, but ultimately its out of the mouth of babes, with the visual sense of Danny DeVito, rather than Dassin or Hawks or Mann. In the words of Bogart's Philip Marlowe, "The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter." Or as P.I. Milton Arbogast (before he climbs the stairway to heaven), "If it ain't gellin', it ain't aspic." And this ain't gellin.'