Lookout, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/02/07 23:35:03
Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt the new king of neo-noir? Could be. The former sitcom star’s been showing his chops for a while now, delivering powerful roles in films like “Manic” and “Mysterious Skin.” And as anyone who’s seen last year’s high school detective yarn “Brick” can attest, Gordon-Levitt’s undeniable screen presence seems to shine all the more when tackling the gritty world of pulpy modern thrillers. His latest entry into the genre is “The Lookout,” a somber, creepy caper that marks the young actor’s best work to date, and yes, I’m counting “Brick.”“The Lookout” finds Gordon-Levitt as Chris Pratt, whose glory days as a high school superstar were cut short when a car crash killed two friends and left Chris with a serious head injury. Years later, he has memory problems, bursts out with fits of rage, spits nasty language and sexual come-ons without control; the simple task of preparing dinner leaves him confused. As such, his condition has made him withdrawn and bitter.
He’s forced to carry around a notepad for jotting messages to himself. His notepad is his connection to the real world, an anchor for his memory, which sounds at first glance to be a vague copy of “Memento,” with its amnesiac character tattooing clues on his own body. But in “The Lookout,” Chris’ notepad is not a plot point gimmick. It is instead a key to understanding the character’s frustrations with his own condition, which is abused by many around him. Chris’ mind moves at a slower pace, and his notepad helps him keep up. This fact is not lost on, say, his boss at the small town bank where he works nights as a janitor; the manager, thinking Chris to be needing of special help, belittles him by reminding him what jobs to write down for the evening.
Chris has moved to Kansas City to escape his wealthy family, especially a cold, distant father (Bruce McGill). (It may seem he’s also escaping the scene of the accident, yet he returns there often to linger on the ghosts of his past.) Yearning to prove to his family a capability for independence, he has found a roommate in the form of Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a blind fast-talker with dreams of opening his own restaurant. Lewis is a surrogate father of sorts for Chris, yet he’s quick to give the young man his space, knowing full well what “gimps” like them need to get by emotionally.
On the other side of the spectrum from Lewis is Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), an ex-con from Chris’ hometown. Gary runs into Chris at a bar late one night, and they reminisce. A second night, Gary helps Chris score with a former stripper improbably named Luvlee (Isla Fisher). Gary invites Chris out to a farm for Thanksgiving dinner, a relaxed friends-only affair far removed from the uptight holiday Chris spent with his family. Throughout all of this, Gary keeps insisting that Chris deserves more with his life; where Lewis sees a reality of just getting by in the world, Gary delivers the promise of getting what you want.
You may have noticed that we’ve talked so much about character and so little about the story itself. This is because “The Lookout” is a caper film in which the caper is almost secondary - it is not what happens here, but why. Gary introduces Chris to a long-planned scheme: robbing Chris’ bank. It is evident to us, and maybe even Chris, that Gary has been working on a way to use Chris’ limited mental capacities for a while now, and a key part of the plan is winning over Chris. Chris, seduced by Gary’s slick ways, sees this scheme as a way to prove the very worth his family, friends, and bosses doubt he has.
The plot itself has all the markings of classic noir, with a sucker who gets pulled into crime that’s far above his head. The film marks the directorial debut of Scott Frank, who also penned the screenplay. The veteran writer, responsible for such scripts as “Dead Again,” “Minority Report,” “Get Shorty,” and “Out of Sight,” has always stuck with noirish fare in his career (other past projects include “Little Man Tate” and the “Flight of the Phoenix” remake), but it’s here where he shines brightest.
Here, Frank makes sure to include all the necessary elements of such a tale, both in his script and in his direction. The script crackles with whip-smart dialogue and cunning turns, and he compliments this with stark, frosty imagery. And like the best noir, Frank has his characters making all the wrong decisions at all the wrong times. But Frank is eager to go further, showing us why those wrong decisions were made, what drive the players to make their moves. This is a character piece above all else.
“The Lookout” then benefits from a dynamite cast. Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal, finding nuance in a role that could have been overstuffed with gimmicky posturing. Instead, he finds a quieter tone to his performance, working his character in the shadows of his actions. It’s an extension of - and, yes, improvement on - his stunning, multifaceted turn in “Brick,” subtly layered and richly realized. New king of neo-noir? Undoubtedly, and after this performance, most deservedly.
At his sides are Goode, whose sinister slickery makes his Gary a memorable villain and a genuine threat; and Daniels, who refuses to sweeten up his mentor role, making his Lewis a much more complex supporting character.Everything else about the film is just right as well, and as such, it becomes one of those dark thrillers that grabs tight while you’re watching, then lingers in your memory for days. Frank tips his hat to the noir genre and then, like all great genre storytellers, transcends it.
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