2007Director: Scott Frank
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
he year was 1999, and the Summer of Stiffler was in full swing. It was a time when teen comedies were like manna from box office heaven, and three-pronged names like Seann William Scott, Rachel Leigh Cook, and Thomas Ian Nicholas were nearly impossible to avoid. No one had very high hopes that any of these performers would become serious film actors, let alone that one of the era’s less ubiquitous heartthrobs, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, would later blossom into one of most accomplished young actors in the world.
And yet, with The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt has accomplished exactly that, delivering his third powerhouse performance in almost as many years, and completing a trifecta so good that it recalls the early successes of a young Pacino or Nicholson. If Mysterious Skin was his Panic in Needle Park, and Brick was his Chinatown, then The Lookout is definitely his Serpico, a tightly-wound genre exercise that is elevated to the realm of art by its leading man. And although Gordon-Levitt’s films haven’t had the benefit of prime-era Schatzburg, Polanski, and Lumet behind the camera, his performances have undoubtedly been worthy of their talents.
Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a night janitor and de facto watchman for a small bank branch in rural Kansas. In high school, he was a star hockey player with a beautiful girlfriend and, as far as we know, he might as well have been prom king and valedictorian too. Life was sweet for Chris until he suffers a terrible car accident, leaving him with permanent brain damage. But The Lookout is not a film chiefly fixated on cognitive impairment like Rainman or I Am Sam; Chris’s brain damage is merely one facet of a complex, guilt-ridden character who finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place; or as he sees it, between a life of crime and a life of frustrating mediocrity.
Director/screenwriter Scott Frank wisely devotes the bulk of his film to examining Chris’s internal conflicts as he weighs the consequences of joining forces with a local hoodlum (Matthew Goode) or scratching out a legitimate business with his blind roommate/mentor, Lewis (Jeff Daniels). The first-time director also strikes a fine balance as he embraces the streamlined storytelling and snappy dialogue that defined his past screenwriting credits (Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Minority Report) while probing the moral implications and psychological motives of his characters. With The Lookout, Frank takes cues from both modern and old-fashioned yarns, crafting a psychodrama that pops and sizzles like a fun pulpy crime film.
But despite Frank’s admirable talents, there are some holes in the film’s logic, which can either be attributed to the sublime simplicity of the story or lazy writing, depending on your viewpoint. A few guffaws were audible whenever Chris was seen driving around town (it would seem that since his condition leaves him unable to open a can of tomatoes, he would have more than a bit of trouble operating a car). Now personally, I didn’t find this too implausible.
More than anything, Chris is a slave to routine, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he could make his way to work everyday without getting lost. The real problem, however, is that Frank never clearly establishes the terms of Chris’simpairment. The audience doesn’t need anything as specific as, say, the strict time-based scheme established in Memento, but the poorly defined limitations here tend to make Chris into a superhero who merely plays dumb whenever the script calls for it.
The thing is, none of this concerned me until after the credits had rolled. Gordon-Levitt is utterly convincing throughout every frame of this film, just as his teenage gumshoe character in Brick felt faintly ridiculous only in retrospect. The intensity he brings to every role lends credibility to the most incredible of circumstances (if Christopher Nolan ever decides to write Dick Grayson into his Batman series, he’d be a fool not to cast Gordon-Levitt).
For 99 minutes, Frank and his brilliant cast totally immerse the audience in the gleefully skuzzy world of small-time crooks, heart-of-gold hookers, and ex-meth-heads. The film left me wanting to know even more about Chris Pratt, his innocently ignoble love interest Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), and Matthew Goode’s soulless swindler. Where did these characters come from? What happens to them next? Where can I go for more of Lewis’s savvy wisdom? When a deceptively simple crime tale leaves you asking questions like these, it’s truly a special thing.
The Lookout is currently available on DVD.
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-09-18