Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Hey you kids, get off my lawn
My Second Chances series, in which I revisit popular films that underwhelmed me, runs on Tuesdays.
This will be the sixth movie I've reconsidered as part of my Second Chances series. I envisioned the series as a genuine opportunity to reconsider some acclaimed movies that other people liked more than I did. But I also thought it would be a good opportunity to bang on some movies I dislike. Writing negative things is much easier than writing positive things.
But the project has been skewed much more toward the former than the latter. I didn't think it would be that way when I ended up disliking the first movie I reconsidered, Gangs of New York, just as much as I disliked it the first time. But since then, from Hoosiers to A History of Violence to The Others to No Country for Old Men, I've liked each film better than the first time, and in some cases, a lot better.
So for my sixth second chance, I thought I'd give myself a softball, and I'd hate it out of the park. Rian Johnson's Brick was supposed to be that softball.
So much for best intentions. Or maybe, in this case, for worst intentions.
When I first saw Brick with my wife at our house a couple years back, we were instantly against it. One look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Brendan, and it was hate at first sight. I didn't like the way he looked. I didn't like the way he talked. I didn't like the way he dug his hands into his jacket pockets in every scene, no matter how improbable, even running that way at one point. I didn't like the way he used exclusively pay phones to talk to people, since you can't even find pay phones anymore these days, especially not standing alone on empty roads. I didn't like his stupid, bratty face. In fact, I didn't like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, period, for a long time after seeing Brick.
But in that last list of dislikes, I skimmed over the thing that really distanced me from Rian Johnson's movie: I didn't like the way he, or anyone in the movie, talked. Brick is obviously supposed to be a neo-noir, and it's heavily stylized because of that fact. For me, it was too stylized, and the dialogue was the most irritating part of that. These 21st century teenagers were talking to each other in a kind of 40's slang that I found highly distancing, and if finding it pretentious weren't enough, it also made it significantly harder to follow (or care about) the action. A sample line of dialogue:
"See The Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper for Brad Bramish to sell, maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they'll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said 'Show your hands' if any of them've actually seen The Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets."
And this line of dialogue is spoken by a character named The Brain.
Or how about this:
"I didn't shake the party up to get your attention, and I'm not heeling you to hook you. Your connections could help me, but the bad baggage they bring would make it zero sum game or even hurt me. I'm better off coming at it clean."
That one was Brendan himself.
To me, this all amounted to Rian Johnson trying to make a bunch of teenagers look too cool ... well, literally, too cool for school. And if there's one thing I hate, it's young people posturing. I'm only 36, not over the hill, but I've been quick to embrace the generation divide between myself and kids who wear their hair like the guys in My Chemical Romance. (I now know there is a word for this: "emo.") No one has hair like that in Brick, but the way they all behave like adults and act super arrogant and dismissive just rubbed me the wrong way. Especially that Gordon-Levitt fellow. I thought if only Johnson had a sense of humor about any of it, it would be that much more tolerable. I didn't think it was a badly made film -- worse, I thought it was a badly conceived film.
In fact, so much did I dislike Brick and all it stood for, I developed a two word dismissal that I used whenever possible:
Okay, thanks for indulging me -- I've gotten that out of my system.
And now I can shock even myself by saying that I liked Brick better this time.
Not at first. At first, as I heard that highly stylized dialogue tumble out of the characters' mouths, I tuned out all over again. I didn't try to glean meaning from the tortured sentences, and I didn't try to give it a second chance. In fact, I was on my laptop for much of the first hour. That didn't mean I wasn't paying attention, but it definitely meant my attention was divided.
But as Brick moved along, I started to appreciate the actual filmmaking more. One thing I noticed liking was the way Johnson filmed his stylized action. For example, the scene where Tug continues punching Brendan in the face next to his (Tug's) car. It plays at somewhere around one-and-a-half times normal speed, and it gains a real comical physicality as a result. I also appreciated the foot chase that Brendan ends by turning the corner, then reversing his steps and executing a sliding trip that sends his pursuer flailing into a metal pole. It worked for me.
The next thing to rehabilitate itself in my eyes was that too-cool-for-school attitude that I initially disliked so much. Implied in my criticism was that I was expecting some kind of realism from Johnson, that I wanted the kids to be goofy and unconfident, like some real teenagers are. That's simply not his intention. The film has a specific style for a specific reason. The characters in Humphrey Bogart movies are too cool for school. So why shouldn't these kids be? I started to view them as the genre archetypes they were supposed to be, not the real teenagers I once wanted them to be.
Then there's the idea that Johnson didn't have a sense of humor. In fact, quite the contrary. No, it doesn't show up too often, but when it does show up, that may make it all the more effective. If my complaint was that these kids were too mature and too cool, Johnson does all he can to deflate that in one funny scene in which Tug, Brendan and The Pin are all meeting for the first time at the house where The Pin lives with his parents. To underscore the fact these are kids, and perhaps even to make it seem like this is all some melodramatic role-playing game they're involved in, Johnson forces these three super-cool character to endure a scene with The Pin's mom, where she offers them juice and cookies. As powerful as they all are, in their own right, none of them are bigger than the etiquette and politeness involved with parental interactions.
For the record, I still don't like the dialogue.
Second Chance Verdict, Brick: It's not my favorite movie, but I will no longer slag it off to my friends.