Screenwriter Scott Frank has written such scripts as Dead Again (1991), Little Man Tate (1991), Get Shorty (1995) and Minority Report (2002), so it should come as no surprise that his first time up as both writer and director would be with a film where characterization is as valued as plot, if not more so. While it passes muster as a thriller, The Lookout is at the very least a character-driven thriller—and Frank establishes himself as a director worth watching.
Unfortunately, the distributor—Miramax—doesn’t seem to think so. This week’s other openers—Meet the Robinsons and Blades of Glory—are both in nearly 3,500 theaters. The Lookout is in a mere 955, and on only one screen locally. Worse, that one screen is slated to cut the film to two shows a day come Wednesday (the day of the week Xpress comes out, and therefore the first day this review will be in print) to make room for Are We Done Yet? and Firehouse Dog … no comment. In short, no one thinks The Lookout is going to make a nickel. That’s really too bad, because Frank’s film is one of the few truly intelligent movies to have hit screens in 2007 thus far. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who made quite an impression in the 2004 Greg Araki film Mysterious Skin) stars as Chris Pratt, a high school athlete whose arrogance leads to a stupid car wreck that kills two of his friends, maims his girlfriend, and leaves him with permanent brain damage. Remembering simple things defeats him and thinking of things in sequence is quite beyond him. His post-accident therapy has landed him a janitorial job in a bank (with the promise of one day being a teller) and a blind roommate, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), who has become Chris’ only friend. Chris, it seems, is the perfect patsy for a bank heist being planned by Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, Match Point), who may have gone to school with him. At least Spargo presents himself as a fellow classmate, and Chris is more than happy to accept him as a friend, especially when their friendship leads to a girlfriend with the improbable name of Luvlee (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers).
Feeding into Chris’ sense that he’s being neglected by his father (Bruce McGill, Elizabethtown), taken advantage of by his employer (David Huband, Breach), and patronized by everyone, it’s not difficult for Spargo to convince him to go along with the robbery scheme. However, what Spargo and his cohorts fail to grasp is that their mark is smarter than he appears. It’s impossible to discuss the plot in greater detail without giving away too much, and the plot is too good to spoil, even if the film’s greatest strength lies in its well-developed characters.
Frank manages to imbue nearly every character with a sense of reality way beyond their mere functions to the plot. The one exception to this is Bone (newcomer Greg Dunham), Spargo’s taciturn boss and leader of the gang, who is left to function solely as a menace. This, however, works because he is so menacing, and because it allows Chris to recognize that menace in a cleverly developed scene in which he plans how to turn the tables on the gang. It also works in a refreshing way that’s grounded in the film’s lack of clunky exposition; the viewer is never fed information unless that information is picked up by Chris or Lewis, and since Bone is strictly a menacing figure for them, his lack of character makes sense.
Frank scores in the way so many of the characters are marked by human frailties. Chris’ mental problems and Lewis’ blindness may be a given, but characteristics such as Spargo’s asthma and the undercurrents to Luvlee’s character are less so. Similar attributes are given to even minor characters as well. On occasion, this goes too far—giving the night patrolman (Sergio Di Zio, Cinderella Man) a pregnant wife in the wings is about on par with painting a target on him—but for the most part it affords The Lookout an unusual illusion of the reality of its characters.
Frank’s direction is generally solid, though not especially creative, and on occasion he fails to convey the mood he’s aiming for (nothing about Chris’ apartment really suggests the hell-hole the script says it is). Still, it’s an impressive debut film, and if you get a chance (don’t dawdle!), it’s certainly worth a look. Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke