The Reeler

Reviews

March 29, 2007

The Lookout

Veteran screenwriter's directorial debut true to noir-ish, antihero form

In the pantheon of American burnouts, is there any offering sadder than the hometown hero turned deadbeat zero? There are more poignant entries, to be sure -- more tragic, more dramatic, more ironic, more iconic -- but for pure, unalloyed bummer value, my money’s on Joe High School.

Scott Frank knows his antiheroes, and as the writer of films like Dead Again, Get Shorty, Minority Report and Out of Sight, has been seemingly winnowing down the options for his directorial debut. Frank decided on the figure of Chris Pratt (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a suburban Kansas City hockey star who ended up mopping floors at the local bank. The twist is that Chris Pratt (and he must be “Chris Pratt” for that full-name flutter, signifying the known but unknowable -- “I can’t believe I fucked Chris Pratt,” a latent admirer writes to him) is not an alcoholic, or inveterately stupid, or ensnared into baby-daddy duty; The Lookout opens with the car wreck that sent his life reeling from its dubious, teenaged pinnacle. As the reckless driver in the brief prologue, Gordon-Levitt channels his character’s invincible status effortlessly (“Give blood, play hockey” reads a bumper sticker); as a survivor of a crash that killed two of his friends, Chris Pratt effectively becomes a walking accident.

Several years after the crash, Pratt is living with a blind roommate named Lewis (an ingeniously wry Jeff Daniels) in a sort of halfway-house set-up where he visits with a social worker (Carla Gugino) regularly, is watched on the nightshift at the bank by his boss and a friendly police officer on patrol, and whose life is covered in a series of Post-It prompts reminding him where he is and what he should be doing. A head injury has made even the simplest tasks a trial for Pratt, and Lewis functions as something of a lookout for the kid, filling in the constant gaps in his short-term memory. Pratt’s daily exercise of writing down his schedule (“I woke up. I took a shower. I shaved.”) introduces the ur-theme of narrative logic, or how figuring out where we want to end up can help make sense of where we are. Into this delicate emotional landscape of recovery through routine rides a passel of noir-ish no-goods with big plans for the town gimp.

“I smell money,” Lewis whispers, upon being received into Pratt’s wealthy family home, and the alienation seething at their dinner table is meant to account in part for Pratt’s susceptibility to Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, of Match Point) a thug who smells money in turn. It is not immediately clear what Gary’s motivation for befriending Pratt at the local bar might be, as Pratt’s status as the slow one is well-known, and in a place that small everyone’s connected, usually by tragedy. The lovely “Luvlee” (Isla Fisher) is largely responsible for Pratt’s successful luring to a farmhouse (straight out of Capote, or A Simple Plan, or Blood Simple) where Gary and Co. are set up on the outskirts of town. The Lookout taps into that familiar vein of backwater desolation and the gnarled up, snowed-in, small-time plans of smaller-time crooks, but with Gordon-Levitt’s eerily self-possessed, pitiful but never bathetic dupe as our conduit, the heist tropes take over without letting you to slip into plot auto-pilot.

Perhaps a bank that lets the mentally impaired janitor lock up deserves to be robbed, and perhaps a kid as reckless as Chris Pratt deserves to be used recklessly. But the most pressing question -- how much of Pratt’s essential winner is left inside of him -- is also the platform for the exploration of narrative’s powerful role in our lives. “You are the star of your own tragedy,” Gary says, at the beginning of an intense re-programming (“I can give you power. Whoever has the money has the power.”) that ends with Pratt agreeing to help the gang rob his employers. Frank’s direction has a cool-handed curiosity -- many of the early compositions, particularly of the bank scenes, cultivate a Hopper-esque, romantic remove -- and builds the film nicely to its satisfying, if somewhat overdetermined, climax. Like so many small pond superstars, young Chris Pratt, devoid of his insular context, is adrift, plotless, an extreme example of a common affliction. “You can’t tell a story if you don’t know where it’s going,” Lewis tells him, “Start at the end.” It proves to be good advice in more ways than one.



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