Friday, August 17, 2007

The Lookout

Director: Scott Frank
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill

Running Time: 99 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

I wake up
I turn off the alarm
I take a shower
I get dressed
I make the coffee
I eat breakfast
I go to class

Seems like a pretty simple list, right? Now imagine struggling every day to just remember the steps. Such is the plight of the protagonist in screenwriter Scott Frank's directorial debut, The Lookout, an emotionally moving character study that doubles as a heist thriller. Comparisons have been made to Memento, but they shouldn't be. This character does not have amnesia. That would almost be too simple. He has a moderately traumatic head injury that sometimes cause him to forget things and act in ways that aren't entirely consistent with his personality, or whatever may be left of it. Unlike Memento, this film doesn't use his condition as a gimmick to give us a twisty plot full of shocks and surprises. His condition is there because it's who he has become and is something he has to deal with. The movie shows that struggle but never exploits it, even when certain characters in the movie are. It's a story about friendship, loyalty and betrayal that just so happens to involve a bank heist. Usually when good thrillers end I have many questions pertaining to the plot. Not here. When The Lookout concluded I found I instead had many questions about life, how we treat one another and our place in this world. I also had to ask myself a couple of more questions: Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt an actor even capable of giving a performance that's less than brilliant, or starring in a movie that doesn't rank among the year's best?

Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a star high school hockey player who one night makes a terrible decision on a lonely highway road that results in the death of two friends and serious injury to himself and his girlfriend. The victim of a head injury from the crash, we join him four years later as the simplest tasks couldn't possibly be more difficult for him. What's most interesting about his condition is that looking at him he appears to be mostly functional, but his brain seems to spin in circles causing him serious short-term memory issues and an inability to properly sequence events. For instance he can drive, but must always keep an extra key in his shoe for when he inevitably locks a set in the car. Everything in his room and in the kitchen have labels and he always carries with him a small notepad he can refer back to whenever he gets stuck.

He shares an apartment with a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels, sporting his Squid and the Whale beard) who despite his disability is amazingly self-sufficient, not to mention very funny. When one of the characters describes him as a blind Larry Flynt they're not too far off the mark. It's his dream to someday with open a restaurant tentatively, but hilariously named "Lew's Your Lunch." Attempting to impart some of his life skills onto Chris, he helps him deal with his disability and the friendship that exists between them is genuinely touching. Chris takes classes at the Life Skills Center of Kansas City where he practices such exercises as sequencing the events of the day, which he struggles greatly with. Things don't go much better with the case worker tracking his progress, as he can't restrain himself from blurting out sexually inappropriate comments during their sessions (which is completely understandable since she's played by Carla Gugino). In his ongoing struggle to maintain normalcy he works the night shift as a janitor at the local bank aspiring to one day become a teller despite the bank manager having little confidence in him handling money.

A few O'Douls at the local pub take the edge off and it's there where he's befriended by gang leader Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, a very long way from Chasing Liberty). He takes him under his wing, introducing him to an alluring ex-stripper named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). They're just suckering him in. What Gary really wants is to rob the bank and he needs him to be the lookout. Gary promises him a piece of the pie and the chance to get the life he once had back. Of course we know that's impossible but Chris doesn't, or if he does, he can't admit it. We also know that no matter what happens in that bank there is no real serious risk of Chris finding himself in legal trouble because of his condition. That's not where the suspense comes from. It comes from Chris' battle to gain control of his soul and come to terms with who he's become after the accident. What happens with the heist I can't reveal, but I will say the blood-soaked final act of the film is slightly reminiscent of Fargo in that we have a Midwestern robbery spiral out of control. Frank beautifully captures the Midwestern landscape (despite the fact it was actually shot in Canada) and James Newton Howard's score, as usual, provides the perfect background.

I just reviewed Disturbia, another movie that also starts off with a life altering car crash. Like this, it goes the thriller route in the second half, but the merger of the two genres didn't seem to work, making the film seem routine. That's not the case here. This is the movie Disturbia could have been if it wanted to. When this film heads down that road it does it well and believably, not losing any of the human drama that brought us there. The two genres are mixed expertly and, if anything, the shift raises the stakes, bringing something out of the characters that was slowly burning during the course of the film. Viewers are rewarded for paying attention to the details of Chris' condition, but not in any way that feels cheap or manipulative.

Scott Frank's script doesn't contain any "big twist" regarding his memory problems, but rather gives space for the situation unfold how it really would and lets him use what he's learned to solve the problem. I loved that. When the ending does come Frank doesn't have everyone skipping into the sunset arm in arm. Everyone has problems and adversities they face in life, but they're not going to just disappear overnight. It takes some work but with small steps improvement can be made a little each day. Sometimes it's the little victories that matter most. The final scene of is as powerful a one as I've seen in any motion picture this year precisely because it doesn't try to dazzle us, but instead just fades out quietly and honestly. I have to admit I almost lost it at the end…and remember, this is a heist movie! The attention to detail in Frank's script can be seen in the most minor characters, like the local cop who stakes out the bank. Even he has an interesting story of why he's really there.

The Lookout may end up as a thriller but what this story is really about is Chris struggling to gain acceptance of who he's become. It's not often in movies a character's struggle with a physical or mental disability is treated truthfully. Here, it is. He isn't the cocky, star jock he was in the film's opening minutes before the accident. He's a different person, but ironically, a better one. He's haunted by the accident and the guilt he carries for his role in it, sitting alone at the skating rink just watching his ex-girlfriend. He dreams of finding the courage to go up to her. What should he say? Apologize? He's not sure, but he knows he has to say something. How will she react? Everything after the accident has become uncomfortable, even with his family. His own father (played by Bruce McGill) won't give him any money because he has no faith in him that he can take care of himself. A trip home is a disaster because no one knows how to talk to the "new Chris." A dinner scene wisely observes how family can sometimes say the most hurtful things without ever meaning to. A situation like this is tough and the movie doesn't patronize us by presenting a cookie cutter version of it.

Gary senses Chris is vulnerable and plays on it, but one of the neat things about the movie is we're never quite sure of Luvlee's intentions, or even if she is either. She could just be playing the game but there are hints she may really have feelings for him. That Fisher doesn't play her like your typical Femme Fatale creates even further ambiguity. Everything she knows of Chris and his reputation is pre-accident. Is she attracted to the Chris now or the Chris then? Or even interested at all? As Chris finds himself slowly being spun into Gary's web we sense we're losing him and he's losing himself. Matthew Goode, nearly unrecognizable, is a true surprise here as I'm sure anyone familiar with his previous work will be completely shocked by with his bad ass intensity. As Gary's right hand man, Bone, Greg Dunham (in his screen debut) hardly says a word but his menacing presence hangs over the picture like a ghastly specter. He's truly frightening.

The irony shouldn't be lost on anyone that Lewis, a blind man, is the only character who can see everything that's happening for exactly what it is. A scene in the kitchen where he interrogates Luvlee just crackles with tension and excitement. Beneath Lewis' sarcastic humor and off putting remarks you can tell he really cares about Chris and Daniels conveys that dimension with perfect subtly. There's a long running joke in Hollywood that quickest way to an Oscar is to play someone with a physical or mental disability. That may be true, but the sad fact is they've seen it fit over the years to honor only the most cartoonish and overblown portrayals of it.

Daniels is so restrained and detailed in his performance with two very difficult jobs on his plate: the actual physical portrayal of blindness and the creation of an engaging multi-dimensional character. It's worthy of a best supporting actor nomination. It's clear throughout the film that serious research was done on the part of Levitt and Daniels to give a real, authentic, and most importantly, honest portrait of people suffering from disabilities and working everyday to make their lives better.

Last year I called Brick one of, if not the very best, film of 2006. It starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a performance I also trumpeted as the best of that year. The Lookout may not be as creatively dazzling as Brick, but its story cuts deeper, it's more important thematically and Levitt's performance is better. It's a tougher role but he owns it all the way and we never get the impression this is acting at all. This really is someone who's had a traumatic head injury and is struggling to deal with its consequences. There's a quiet, restrained intensity he brings to the role I'm convinced no other actor could. He doesn't have to rely on any gimmicks or tricks and he just creates this person from the inside out.

Just few years ago Levitt (previously best known for his role as Tommy Solomon on t.v's Third Rock From The Sun and a feature co-starring role in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You) probably wouldn't be at the top of anyone's list to emerge as this generation's most interesting and exciting actor. This proves a couple of things: First, that talent in this industry can be hiding where you least expect it. Secondly, hard work sometimes actually pays off. And it's important for actors to have a brain so they can make intelligent, informed choices when it comes to choosing roles. I know he had taken some time off from acting but when he returned it was clear something really clicked. First came Manic. Then Mysterious Skin. With last year's Brick we had to start taking notice that he could become one of our best actors. Now with The Lookout, he officially is. I can't recall an actor ever starring in two movies in a row as strong.

This film had long been a labor of love for its director Scott Frank, a screenwriter responsible for writing such films as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Minority Report. Scott wrote the script which was tossed around in development for nearly a decade, with David Fincher originally attached to direct. It would have been interesting to see what he did with it, but I'm glad Frank ultimately decided to helm it himself. In other hands, I can't see how it possibly could have better (which is saying something since I consider Fincher the best living director). It's times like this where I'm glad I covered my ass a few weeks ago when I called Zodiac the best film of 2007 SO FAR, because this is right up there with it.

This is a film that rewards viewers with repeated viewings not because of intricacies of plot, but character. That's a rare feat for the heist genre. Most filmmakers would be thrilled to say they directed one great heist movie or one great character study in their entire career. Scott Frank did both already in his first time out, all from a screenplay he wrote and developed himself. It makes you wonder what could possibly be next for him. Whatever is, The Lookout goes down as one of the year's best, and an unforgettable experience.

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