Apr 3, 2007

Review - "Out of Sight", "Minority Report" scribe makes workmanlike debut film "The Lookout"

Thrillers are generally pot-boiling stories of greed and desire, which is why its refreshing to see, if not altogether breathtaking, an entry in this AARP eligible genre expend just as much energy on depicting inertia and statis as it does on car chases and double crosses. Without obviously reaching to transcend its modest ambitions, those of a low key heist movie made rich by its fair helpings of character nuance and brisk humor, The Lookout manages to hitch its ride to a basic noir set-up and yet, due largely to the intimate, textured performance of Third Rock From The Sun star turned indie godlet Joesph Gordon-Levitt, becomes a meditation on living in the face of regret and disability with an odd, cathartic power that sneaks up on the viewer. Deftly channeling the impeccable genre craftsmanship and sharp wit he’s brought to screenwriting efforts for some of eras most formidable Hollywood directors, Scott Frank’s directorial debut is a low simmering thriller whose rhythms are reminiscent of minor Chabrol or mid-career Melville, a crime movie about a wounded soul drowning in his own melancholia who isn’t particularly sympathetic and who’s problems aren’t neatly wrapped up by the final frame. It for the most part eschews the tired montages of intricate heist planning, stakeouts and safe cracking that have become staples of the genre because it’s more interested in investigating a life put on indefinite hold.

Inhabiting the world of a psychologically damaged young adult as he did to great effect in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a high school hockey star and pampered scion of an elite Kansas City family turned vaguely willing accomplice to a band of small time bank robbers. In the film’s opening passage Chris, recklessly driving with his lights off in order to impress his girlfriend with his knowledge of route 24’s sublime, lightning bug infested nighttime skies, kills his teammate and another woman in a horrific, preventable accident.

Cut to four years later and Chris is a broken young man; permanent frontal lobe damage has left him with short term memory loss, an inability to perform simple tasks or relate to the opposite sex with the temporary inhibitions required for seduction. A shell of the wealthy prep sports Golden child we briefly glimpsed, he lives with the anguish of someone who isn’t the person he once was and yet can’t fit comfortably into the identity they’ve been forced to assume by a wicked twist of fate. Marginally employed as a late night bank janitor, largely disconnected from his financially supportive but emotionally distant family, he lives in a dicey two bedroom flat with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a razor sharp, middle age blind man with a nose for trouble and bad puns, who shares with Chris the modest desire to open a restaurant (“Lou’s your Lunch” is there perspective name for the establishment). An early scene with his counselor (Carla Gugino) informs us that Chris can sometimes grasp the charmer he once was (his response to her suggestion that he try to find a girlfriend is priceless and unprintable), but is largely able to function by maintaining a grim, flavorless routine that he constantly must remind himself of with notes (a la Guy Pearce’s similarly disabled hero in Christopher Nolan’s more formally audacious thriller Memento) and the audience of with cleverly written voiceover. These include frequent visits to the site of the accident and to a local skating rink where he catches daily glimpses of his ex-girlfriend Kelly (Laura Vandervoort), who lost her leg in the accident.

Chris makes an easy target for Gary Spargo (British actor Matthew Goode, completely transformed from his Rupert Everettesque turn in Matchpoint), a bright eyed, wiry crook who wants to bust into the bank Chris cleans in order to make off with the influx of farm subsidy money that pours into the rural bank annually. Flattering Chris with mentions of his previous local celebrity, they strike up a casual acquaintance at the local bar (literally called “The Local” in one of the film’s least inspired choices) he introduces Chris to Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher) a ex-stripper who seduces the sexually frustrated Chris in order to win his affections for Gary’s scheme. Fisher isn’t able to get much out of her thankless, underwritten femme fatale role, but her banality and warm, underwhelming quality meshes well with the material’s Midwestern exurban locale (Winnipeg double for Kansas City).

The film is at its most effective when glimpsing Chris alone or with Lewis, they’re mutual resignation to socially and sexually diminished lives adding a hint of ennui to the grimly humorous tone. Levitt is most riveting when he struggles to make dinner or tie his shoes. In a quiet moment toward the middle of the film, he admits to Luvlee that he sometimes can’t remember that an orange is named an orange, occasionally calling it a lemon even though he knows he’s wrong. Frank’s commercially-oriented sensibility doesn’t let the film stray to far in the direction of unbridled naturalism that these moments hints at, but it’s a welcome respite from the purely plot driven mechanics most entries in the genre.

Scott and DP Alar Kivilo (who also shot the outstanding Midwestern thriller A Simple Plan for Sam Raimi) keep things pretty simple, lensing the thing with a lean, no frills aesthetic, one that accurately captures the dichotomy of rural and urban that Midwestern cities often have while giving us a sense of the gloom that pervades Pratt’s existence. Shot in HD on the Panavision Genesis, The Lookout, with a few extremely notable exceptions, has a filmy texture that wasn’t evident in Brian Singer’s Superman Returns or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (both shot with the Genesis), but its HD aesthetic isn’t as audacious or as neatly wedded to the picture’s thematic concerns as David Fincher’s Zodiac or Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. Ironically, both were attached to direct The Lookout at different points. One wonders what either of those iconoclasts would have done with an unassuming script like The Lookout, but Scott Frank, unlike his protagonist, was obviously the right man for the job.