Noir in the ‘ATL’

Kyle Smith

There is a curious way that young people yearn to be adults that cradle-robs their innocence. In both the neo-noir Brick and the appropriately- titled ATL, kids grow up too fast. ATL’s maturation is gruff and predictable, but Brick’s innocence is nonexistent, to the point that the film’s seemingly safe future as a cult classic could be endangered. After all, without the rosy sentimentality of a Wes Anderson film or even Donnie Darko, what human element or quotable lines will Brick inspire?

The kids in Brick speak an indecipherable noir code that is more impenetrable than its source material, the hard-boiled novels (and film adaptations) of that trendy threesome: Hammett, Cain and Chandler. And as loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his ubiquitous sidekick, The Brain, try to solve a murder mystery, all our favorites show up: the gimpy kingpin, simply called Pin and played by 30-year-old (and one-time Amish informant in Witness) Lukas Haas; the dark-haired, red-dressed femme fatale; the hotheaded bodyguard and the transient substance abuser.

But writer/director Rian Johnson’s Orange County simulation is handled with an earnest seriousness, and this particular writer feels the set-up rises above being mere gimmick. It’s a level of neo-Tarantino pastiche that Q only wishes he had – Johnson’s homage is so honest and loving without harboring the “insider” feel so typical of Tarantino. No in-jokes, just story.

Johnson does break his self-imposed fourth wall occasionally, to varying success. The policing vice principal, played by Shaft himself, is the one element that feels forced. The clueless families that populate the film, however, are unerringly hilarious.

Johnson does introduce a new level to the hard-boiled genre: politeness. Not a single profanity is uttered in the unfairly R-rated film (there are drugs and guns, of course), but the femme fatale’s final curse is a whispered “bad word.” There’s no greater disservice in the eyes of gentlemen and ladies than rudeness.

Brick hints at social chasms but doesn’t take the time to explore them. Its general thesis is that the idle rich always control the dedicated pushers working the streets, a lesson held over from the best noir. It should also be noted that Brick’s rapid-fire, tell-all explanation is quick, confusing and unsatisfying, and I can’t think of any way to make these sound like good things. Brick’s original stylings should wilt under its plot, which is ultimately a little disappointing.

On the other side of the country, we’ve got the loving ATL with its drugs, dress-up and social commentary, and on more than a few counts the Dirty South has The O.C.’s number. ATL works best when it’s a carefully conceived mood piece: the hard-working Rashad (rapper T.I.) and his buddies driving the streets of Atlanta, roller skating, and giving each other shit. Rashad falls in love with a hottie named New-New (Lauren London); his brother gets caught up dealing drugs with Big Boi (who is great as a pissed-off Kanye lookalike); his buddy Esquire tries to get into a fictional Ivy League school (doesn’t make sense in the movie, either); and they hang out at Waffle House.

ATL also offers a fantastic twist only hip-hop can provide. While Esquire is visiting a black millionaire airline magnate John Garnett (Keith David, who always looks like he’s pissed off), he discovers his daughter is New-New – replete with Urban Outfitters clothes, no weaves and a white friend. She’s the privileged girl trying to fit in the ghetto because it seems “real,” because it’s her culture. The movie is oddly undecided as to what path New-New takes, though Rashad flips upon learning of her money. It’s a classic “wrong side of the tracks” love story – only, in Atlanta, the wrong side is the rich one.

Racism in the South is nothing new, but ATL’s lens highlights the hypocrisy. The film has an odd fetish with paintings that’s usually awkward, but in one scene it carries a potent, if broad, power: Garnett in a room full of rich white men, smoking a cigar with a pro-Confederacy portrait in the background. The rock band Drive-By Truckers are obsessed with this same contradiction: the history of the racist South and the reality of its modern African-American populace.

ATL is well-acted, especially T.I., and comes alive with dynamic cinematography by a man named Crash, who still loses the best cinematographer name to Ericson Core. ATL’s rosy ending disappoints, much like Brick, but plot isn’t always that important – the South, in particular, has always been more about style than story – and as I counted the 45-plus songs featured in the film, it comes across as a modern-day, country-fried American Graffiti.

Writing this review, I have listened to T.I.’s “What You Know” close to a dozen times. I’m seeing the gang crusin’ in Rashad’s red El Dorado, and sometimes that’s enough story for me.

Communications senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]