Scott Frank has written some great movies, but The Lookout isn’t one of them. He’s had his greatest successes working from Elmore Leonard novels, adapting Get Shorty and Out of Sight into slick, poppy capers that boasted colorful dialogue, quirky characters, and, especially with Out of Sight, a tangible sexuality. But those films also benefited from the guiding hands of their gifted directors — Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Soderbergh, respectively — whose distinctive presence and style pushed each film beyond a collection of scenes and into a cohesive unit, an entity with a consistent tone and look and feel. Out of Sight’s romantic chemistry, sidekick humor, engaging editing, and vintage soundtrack are impossible to separate: They each contribute to the whole. And for Frank’s first turn in the directing chair, The Lookout is far from a failure: All the pieces of a classic heist thriller are here, from the protagonist looking to atone, the dangerous woman who will inevitably wreak havoc on the protagonist, etc. But aside from the sudden burst of violent action in the third act, The Lookout never really goes anywhere or creates enough tension to make the characters indispensable. If it only had some thrills, it’d be a decent thriller.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a high-school god, or at least he appears to be at the outset of the film: He’s driving fast through the Kansas night in his Mustang convertible, occasionally kissing the beautiful blonde riding shotgun, while another couple sits ill-advisedly on the rear of the back seat so they can wave their arms and shout for the sheer joy of being young and drunk. Chris kills the headlights so they can all see the gentle cloud of fireflies gliding past the car, which turns out to be a bad idea: Chris runs into a combine that’s stalled in the middle of the road, at which point Frank throws the action forward four years. Chris, now narrating, lays out his daily routine, which consists of constantly writing notes for himself on a small pad about where he has to go and what he’s just done. The accident affected Chris’ brain functions via frontal lobe disinhibition (which is real), and as a result he has trouble remembering things, and ordering his memories so they make sense. His condition isn’t quite as pronounced as Leonard Shelby’s extremely specific amnesia in Christopher Nolan’s Memento; Chris knows where he lives and works, and his family and friends, but needs help with planning his daily itinerary and finding the can opener. He also doesn’t have much control over saying things he knows he shouldn’t, as when he tells his case worker, Janet (Carla Gugino), how he constantly thinks about sleeping with her. It’s never clear what exactly Janet does for Chris, or how they were paired, or what he’s supposed to be trying to accomplish with her. She’s completely extraneous, and never reappears after her brief scene with Chris a few minutes into the film. Whether Frank was simply recruiting Gugino as a callback to his old “Karen Sisco” days, I don’t know, but he’d have done himself a favor by either eliminating Janet altogether or else giving her some relevance in Chris’ life. The shaky nature of the character’s existence — here for good one minute, gone forever the next — is representative of the screenplay’s shortcomings overall: Nothing quite connects with anything else. The scene with Janet and Chris introduces a potentially complicated working relationship that could have been used later when Chris runs into trouble, but Frank unfortunately discards it and moves on.
Chris works as a night janitor at a tiny bank more than an hour away from where he lives (it’s never explained, don’t ask), and most of the time he keeps to himself or hangs out with his blind roommate, Lewis (Jeff Daniels). Lewis and Chris were set up by the center where Chris regularly attends classes meant to help him overcome the mental problems he’s developed since the accident, but Daniels’ personality keeps the arrangement from having a forced-matchmaking vibe. One night Chris heads down to a bar to clear his head and winds up meeting Gary (Matthew Goode), an ex-classmate from high school, and it’s here that Frank completely tips his hand. As a foil for Chris and the catalyst that leads him down a dangerous path, Gary never had a chance to be anything but a two-bit hood running a transparent con because Frank, rather than let the audience’s knowledge of Gary develop with Chris’, reveals Gary and his shady friends pointing out Chris from the street before they even go into the bar. “Yeah, that’s Chris Pratt,” Gary says outside before taking a drag on his asthma inhaler and punching a friend who’s attempting to light a cigarette. The brief scene speaks volumes about Gary’s character, establishing him as (a) a bully, (b) the ringleader, and (c) possessing an ulterior motive in befriending Chris, which he does inside the bar. As a result, the film is drained of the tension it could’ve built as Gary wormed his way into Chris’ life; it’s not a question of if or even how Gary will go bad, simply when.
It’s through Gary that Chris meets Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), a former stripper who for some reason still goes by her stage name. Fisher performs the femme fatale role with a ditzy twist, flirting with Chris and eventually (not like it was a challenge) seducing him. For Chris to get involved with a stripper would probably be a bad idea even under the best of circumstances, and since Frank has already clearly broadcast the motives of Luvlee’s pal Gary, it’s a sure bet that things will end in heartbreak. After hanging out a few times, Gary clues Chris in on his plan to rob Chris’ bank, and manages to sell Chris on the idea that the cash will provide him a measure of independence and a chance at the old life he’s lost.
The heist scene itself, two-thirds of the way through the film, is the first time Frank actually induces any of the scenes with a modicum of tension, and the film stops spinning its wheels in the mud and starts to move forward. A resulting gunfight explodes with the kind of frenetic action that Steven Spielberg brought to Frank’s screenplay in Minority Report, and it’s good to see that Frank at least knows how to engineer a suspenseful sequence, even if he never avails himself of the talent more than once in 100 minutes. The British-born Goode is completely believable as a Midwestern thug, and even imbues Gary with a (very) small amount of charm. Fisher doesn’t have much more to do than walk around half-dressed and disappear when Frank runs out of things for her to say, but she’s still got this bubbly verve that makes the character appealing. Gordon-Levitt, who was so wonderful in Brick, also does a good job rocketing between Chris’ alternate moods of sour aloofness and a longing to be accepted: The look on his face when he thinks about Luvlee is almost uncomfortably honest.
Frank’s film isn’t without its diversionary pleasures, particularly Daniels. But parts of the film feel cobbled together from Christopher Nolan’s first two films — the theft-con of Following and the memory-jarring of Memento. What’s worse, Chris’ disease doesn’t wind up playing that much of a role in the larger story: He could have been just some random shy kid plucked by burglars to be the lookout, or he could never have been in the accident at all. It’s as if the film had a good idea but didn’t know where to go with it. Sadly, the same goes for Frank.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog (if the gods of the interwebs have it up and running), Slowly Going Bald.No Deposit, No Return
Film | March 30, 2007 | Comments ()