Written & Directed by: Scott Frank
There are character-driven dramas and there are heist pictures, but rarely are there ever both, equally, together. Of course, any worthwhile safecracking flick's going to sport skilled character development—The Killing comes immediately to mind—but no character drama needs, necessarily, a bank robbery. The Lookout is a thoughtful rumination on the lives of a handful of brokedown men that features, somewhere in its margins, a looming crime, but, unfortunately for us, veteran screen-writer and first-time director Scott Frank veers off-course in the last act and the film suffers irredeemably for it.
A lonely, guilt-ridden shell of a man, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the erstwhile BMOC of his high school, a small-time celebrity on skates whose tough-guy bumper sticker would bully any lily-livered egghead who might happen upon it: "Give blood—Play Hockey." In the present, however, he suffers from debilitating brain damage, the result of a car accident—for which he was responsible—that left two friends dead and his girlfriend legless. "Look how beautiful the fireflies are," he muses (I paraphrase) to his beau with the headlights turned way down low, just before slamming into a stalled semi. Right away, The Lookout gives arrogance its comeuppance, though it also, rather curiously, seems to unduly punish an endearing romantic impulse. For a lovingly optimistic film, it opens with a cynical one-two.
Recalling Memento, Chris now barely makes it through his daily routine, eking out an existence thanks mostly to the notes that he leaves for himself ("take a shower...with soap!"); however, tasks that pop-up unexpectedly, no matter how humdrum, easily have the power to outwit him—when his blind roommate, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), asks him to heat up some tomato sauce, he can’t remember where the can opener is and winds up trashing the kitchen in a furious act of frustration. (There’s an electric one on the counter that even the man with no eyes can find.)
Gordon-Levitt's seizures of loneliness, embarrassed confusion and disgruntled rage further cement his reputation as one of the top actors of his generation, and it's his performance, buttressed by those of his co-stars, that really makes the film worth the ticket-price. (Although, as much as I enjoyed Brick, I'd still sooner swoon over Ryan Gosling any day.) Chris, a night janitor at a bank with modest dreams of becoming a teller, runs into former classmate and from-afar admirer Gary (Matthew Goode)—at least, that's who Gary claims to be—in a bar, over an O’Doul’s. Goode is a joy to behold on-screen, and he brings to The Lookout the same ensnaring charisma he brought to Match Point, though here it's of a far more sinister vein. It turns out that Gary belongs to a gang of thieves, casing Chris’ bank and in need of his help to execute a robbery. As Lewis says early in the film, “stories are what help us make sense of the world,” and Gary is able enlist Chris’ reluctant assistance by telling him a really good story, offering him not only money and the aptly-named Luvlee Lemons (Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher) but power; “I just wanna be who I was,” Chris confesses early in the film, and though Gary can't give him his brain back, he offers Chris independence and control over the life he lost, an offer all too tempting to refuse.
Frank's debut behind the camera (rather than off to the side somewhere) is, for a while, a fresh take on the heist picture because the first two acts are devoted almost exclusively to Chris, slowly developing who he is and what he was: meet his family, his roommate, his case worker, his boss, his co-workers. In fact, even calling it a "heist picture" during its first two-thirds would be inappropriate, as the film cleverly plays as a character drama with a heist on the side. My favorite scene was somewhere in the film's middle, when Chris goes to visit the gang of thieves at their farmhouse hideout for a proper Thanksgiving dinner. Milling about, and only fleetingly glimpsed, is a confused old man, finally taken away by a scary, silent man in sunglasses. Are they occupying someone's home, and holding him hostage? That could be a whole movie unto itself, but Frank keeps it subtly in the background. After all, less concerned with criminal goings-on, he is interested only in his beloved Chris. But, as the caper comes to overpower the narrative in the third act—as plot overtakes character—Frank loses his way, allowing the proceedings to unforgiveably descend, starting with the climactic crime itself that features a cheaply manipulative development, into formulaic hokum. It's an awkwardly inorganic change of course, but a valuable lesson: if you want to make a movie about a robbery, put it at the forefront; if you want to make a movie about people, don't get them caught up in a silly robbery.