I picked up 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on a whim, and, after watching it, I was glad that my expectations hadn't been very high. It has some interesting twists on traditional film noir elements, as well as other general film elements, and some clever humor - but an enduring movie it is not.
The Plot. Robert Downey Jr. is a thief accidentally thrust into the movie world. Val Kilmer is a gay private detective. Michelle Monaghan is a struggling actress who just happens to be Downey's old high school friend. They get caught up in rich guy Corbin Bernsen's web of stuff that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The plot is hard to follow, and you have to be willing to go with the filmmakers on a most of the things they claim are important, or evident, or realistic.
The Noir. It has the basically good if flawed hero who gets into situations way over his head. It has the PI. It has the (basically) good girl sidekick. It has the big, bad city of LA. It has chapter titles taken from titles of novels and short stories by Raymond Chandler. It has sex, violence (it gets gorier as it moves along), and money. It's not the noir part that fails here. The atmosphere is perfectly done, right down to the lovely low-saturation cinematography and the bizarrely decadent party backgrounds.
The Dame. As dames go, Harmony is an okay one. She's pretty smart (she figures out a key plot point before any of the other characters do, even though I don't think the logic she uses is as indisputable as they make it sound). She's a little shrill at times, but willing to jump into the fight. Could have used a dangerous femme fatale as a counterpoint to her "dream girl" role, but the last thing this movie needed was more complications. It could barely handle the ones it already had.
The Fourth Wall. The only completely successful cinematic breaking of the fourth wall I can recall offhand is Groucho Marx's numerous audience asides in the early Marx Bros. movies. It's hard to pull off. Another attempt that comes to mind is the recent Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which also didn't quite work.* Kiss Kiss takes the meddling with conventions to a humorous, but ultimately just confusing extreme. It works better in book format, which is whence this particular story came. Here, the narration directly to the audience, and the constant reminders that the narrator knows he's in a movie, destroy the suspension of belief the audience needs to believe this convoluted plot and its characters are real enough to pay attention to. If the story were tighter, it would be easier to accept the asides. But it's not, and everything is just too messy to concentrate on.
The Bottom Line. It's fun, especially for neo noir fans who treasure old-noir-style wit and one-liners. Which I am. I enjoyed watching it. But it doesn't go down on my list of noir classics.
* Only a few days after I posted this, the Filmspotting team took on this very topic, movies that break the fourth wall, and come up with many more examples, including some I overlooked - High Fidelity, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Inside Man, and more than one Woody Allen film - but few play with these rules as fast and loose as Kiss Kiss does, and most do the fourth wall trick much, much better.