What’s the rumpus?” went one of a zillion catchy phrases from Miller’s Crossing, the Coen brothers’ gab-happy reclamation of ’30s tough talk. In the hermetic universe of Rian Johnson’s cutesy feature debut, that phrase might be “Where’s she having lunch these days?” or “Still picking your teeth with freshmen?” Like an especially violent episode of The O.C., Brick injects Hammettesque dialogue and femme fatale intrigue into a SoCal high-school setting. It’s a neat trick, sure to thrill lovers of language divorced from any real meaning.
Young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so moving in last year’s Mysterious Skin as a gay hustler, definitely has the speed and chops for Brick’s self-styled student investigator, Brendan.This lone wolf’s extracurriculars include getting to the bottom of who killed his ex-girlfriend (Lost’s De Ravin), tangoingwith his school’s hard-nosed vice principal (Shaft’s Richard Roundtree in an unexpectedly deft parody of noir’s flatfoots) and infiltrating the den of “the Pin” (Haas), the enigmatic local drug lord. But in terms of emotional gravity, the convoluted plot—which will throw even mystery lovers for a loop—is way beneath Gordon-Levitt’s range and not worth the decoding. Orange County’s San Clemente comes off vividly, a cold interzone of asphalt and palm trees, the perfect setting for noir. But for all of Johnson’s obvious love of genre classics, he’s forgotten to include “the stuff that dreams are made of”—wealth, greed, the betrayal of love or, barring those, a mysterious black bird to tie it all together. (Opens Fri; Angelika.)—Joshua Rothkopf