Scott Frank has a steady and distinguished career as one of Hollywood's most accomplished screenwriters. Along with scores of uncredited rewrites, he's been responsible for penning hit films like Minority Report, Get Shorty, Malice, Little Man Tate and the superlative Out Of Sight. Now, after 20 years, Frank jumps behind the camera to direct a corn-belt heist noir that's positively European.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From The Sun, Brick) stars as Chris Pratt, a golden-boy high school student whose life is upended by a tragic car accident. Consumed with guilt over the death of his friends and handicapped by an odd form of brain damage, Chris lives in a seedy apartment with his blind roommate, Lewis (a terrific Jeff Daniels), and works as a janitor at a podunk bank. Because of his disability he has difficulty keeping sequences straight in his head and struggles with impulse control Chris can't hold down a real job or function normally in society. At least that's what everyone assumes.
Frank spends nearly half the film carefully and compassionately charting Chris' day-to-day struggles with the world. The unrelenting need for routine, the casual pity and condescension of family and co-workers erodes his self-worth, filling him with frustration, rage and depression. That Gordon-Levitt can sell these conflicting emotions and still keep his character likable is testament to this young actor's enormous talents. Never crossing into sentimentality, he makes Chris' mental and physical damage inescapably vulnerable and profoundly authentic. When shady ex-schoolmate Gary (Matthew Goode) and cutie-pie fatale Luvlee (Isla Fisher) show up, it only makes sense that Chris would jump at the chance to become "friends."
In case you didn't see it coming, the pair uses Chris' low self-esteem and frustration to manipulate him into joining their scheme to rob the bank where he mops the floor. Never mind that the guy can't remember how to use a can-opener, now he's involved in a complex and ruthless heist where everyone's motives are suspect.
It's a nifty conceit one that avoids the gimmicky psychological pyrotechnics of Memento and Frank fills the film with enough existential conflict to paint an interesting portrait and an emotional thriller. We care about the choices Chris makes and why he makes them. The Lookout never sacrifices honesty for the sake of the plot and Frank provides his characters with sharply written scenes. Goode's argument for why Chris should join his criminal plan and Daniel's casual interrogation of Luvlee's intentions are masterfully written exchanges that reveal intentions and emotions.
Where Frank stumbles is in the machinations of the robbery. A standard-issue bank heist, the crosses and double-crosses never take flight, and the story struggles to make Chris' handicap relevant to the final showdown. Despite some satisfying surprises the actions of a Barney Fife-like cop are particularly well-rendered the caper ends up disappointing. Worse, Frank introduces and drops minor characters, Luvlee in particular, to little effect, never tying them into the bigger picture.
Still, with its melancholy tone and insightful character study, The Lookout manages to do the unthinkable: make Kansas' endless prairie horizon feel French. As Chris learns to start at the end of his tale then work his way back to the beginning, Frank a consummate storyteller shows us how stories guide our lives. The emotional and psychological fallout of his character's disability, the script's crisp noir-ish humor and its carefully crafted narration all come together to bring resonance and substance to this genre flick if not, unfortunately, thrills.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.