It's a cute idea: Take the hardboiled noir of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and transplant it to a So-Cal high school, where the wisecracking gumshoe is, in fact, just another one of the self-involved, teenage worrywarts - angsters instead of gangsters.

Alas, Brick, from writer-director Rian Johnson, isn't as clever as its conceit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the hardest-working college kid in indie films) stars as Brendan Frye, a junior-league Humphrey Bogart trying to find out how his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Lost's Emilie de Ravin), wound up dead in an out-of-the-way creek.

Trolling the sunny, suburban landscape and the locker-lined halls of the school, Frye knocks heads, sneers at saucy seductresses, and dishes out vintage private-eye patter. "Throw one at me if you want, hash head," he growls to one of a bunch of dopes threatening to punch him out. "I've got all five senses and I slept last night - that puts me six up on the lot of you."

Frye tosses similar tough-guy barbs at the school jock, the student diva, the nerd, the snotty babe-on-campus, and even the assistant principal (blaxploitation star Richard Roundtree). But the best of the cast is Lukas Haas, playing a beanpole drug czar called the Pin. He's sinister and effete, and still lives at home with his mother.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

Brick ** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emilie de Ravin and Lukas Haas.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, drugs)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Ritz Sixteen/NJ