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The Lookout

Who could have predicted that the goofy, longhaired alien kid from

3rd Rock from the Sun

would grow up into an indie star with real acting chops? Joseph Gordon-Levitt has moved past his sitcom role and the even sillier

Angels in the Outfield

to deliver stellar work in

Mysterious Skin, Brick

and now

The Lookout

(opening March 30 throughout San Diego).

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Jeff Daniels and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Lookout

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The Lookout opens with an accident. Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a teen driving a convertible down a dark country road. He has a trio of passengers hes trying to impress. He promises them, especially his pretty blonde girlfriend, something breathtaking. He cuts the headlights and delivers on his promise. Soon the car is engulfed by glowing particlespossibly firefliesthat make it look like they are flying off into hyperspace like Han and Chewy. Theres a surreal beauty to the scene yet we sense something ominous as well. Chris turns the headlights back on and suddenly a huge combine tractor looms in front of them. Chris slams into the stalled vehicle and then film jumps forward.

After months of recovery, Chris has apparently overcome his physical injuries from the accident. A barely noticeable limp is the only visible reminder of the crash. But we soon discover that the emotional and psychological damage has been far more difficult to overcome. We hear Chris narrate how his day beginswaking up, showering with soap and then He cant seem to remember his daily routine beyond the first couple things he does. Thats when we start to notice that everything in his apartment is labeled with signs and post-its reminding him to turn off the lights, lock the door and remember his keys. Slowly we discover that Chris suffered a serious head injury and now has trouble with his memory and with sequencing. He carries around a little notebook in which he constantly jots down the things that are important.

Offering support is Lewis (Jeff Daniels), Chris blind roommate. Lewis provides emotional stability and the kind of humor that can diffuse tense situations for Chris. As Chris struggles through each day, we slowly begin to understand what he has lost. He had been a local high school hockey star and a rich kid with a bright, enviable future. But since the accident, he has pushed aside his wealthy family, and taken up living in a tacky apartment and working as a night janitor in a bank. Aside from Lewis and sexual fantasies about his caseworker (Carla Gugino in a brief cameo), Chris has little contact with anyone.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mathew Goode in The Lookout

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Then Gary (Matthew Goode) enters his lifeor more accurately insinuates himself into Chris life. Their first meet is calculated by Gary to be casual. They happen upon each other at a bar, Gary says he went to school with Chris sister; they do a quick catch up and then part. They hook up again by chance and Gary buys Chris a drink and introduces him to Luvlee (Isla Fisher), whose name pretty much sums her up. Then we finally get to Garys real motive: he wants Chris to be the lookout for a robbery that Gary has planned at the bank where Chris works. Gary sees Chris as the perfect accomplice. He works at the bank yet no one would suspect a brain-damaged employee as a likely candidate to plan a heist. Plus Chris mental problems give Gary the confidence that Chris will not be smart enough to pull any kind of double cross. The robbery proves to be yet another life-altering event in Chris young life but not necessarily in the ways that you might expect.

Writer Scott Frank makes his directing debut with The Lookout . Franks screenwriting credits provide an erratic offering from lame ( Minority Report, Flight of the Phoenix, The Interpreter ) to smart and snappy ( Out of Sight, Get Shorty ). The Lookout plays to his strengths and takes its cue from the two Elmore Leonard adaptations hes done ( Out of Sight, Get Shorty ). The Lookout has a chilly noir quality as it deals with crime and deceit. We get many of the classic noir elementsbetrayal, duplicitous women, morally ambiguous characters, crimebut they get a nice tweaking here. For one, Frank trades in the usual big city setting for a wintry Kansas small town. The change allows for a fittingly bleak backdrop for a tale of damaged characters.

Frank also uses the character of Chris well. As with the memory-impaired protagonist in Memento , Chris problems with sequencing provide a narrative device that proves very effective. As Chris tries to sort out his life, the film is provided with a quirky narrative structure. The non-linear and self-reflexive nature of the script is never gimmicky because it arises naturally from the character. Chris is in therapy to help him improve his memory and coping skills. Hes told to try and write down his daily events as a means of helping him remember. But the act of writing things down is also a sly way to reference the storytelling process. Lewis suggests that Chris treat it like a story but that he needs to start at the end and work his way back to the beginning. So Chris tells us that once upon a time I woke up and that pulls us into the rituals of his life. As those routines are disrupted, Frank takes the story on dramatic twists and turns. Since Chris memory is faulty, this allows for Frank to provide information in a non-linear manner. We get bits and pieces of the puzzle in a random manner that reflects Chris way of perceiving the world.

Although the main pull of the story involves the robbery, Frank also delivers a film in which we get a very real sense of what it is like to go through life with impaired mental abilities. The details of Chris life convey the kind of frustration and obstacles facing someone who simply cannot do the things that he had taken for granted before his injurylike using a can opener or remembering to take his keys with him when he turns off his cars engine.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris Pratt in The Lookout

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As Chris, Gordon-Levitt delivers another finely tuned performance. His performance is tinged with a bittersweet sadness yet it also manages to deliver the tougher elements we expect from a noir anti-hero. Gordon-Levitt manages to win our sympathy rather than our pity even after he makes a series of bad decisionsboth before and after his accident. After his over the top antics on TVs 3rd Rock from the Sun , Gordon-Levitt seems to have learned that less can definitely be more when it comes to acting. His low-key work in Mysterious Skin, Brick and now The Lookout proves effective and compelling. In contrast to his introverted Chris is Jeff Daniels gregarious Lewis. As written, the part is sometimes a little too much with Lewis coming across as the clichd handicapped character whos not about to let his disability get in the way of anything. Daniels sometimes punches up the humor too much, but overall his performance proves a good complement to Gordon-Levitts Chris. Matthew Goode, the snooty rich Brit in Match Point, delivers a surprising turn as the cruelly manipulative Gary.

The Lookout (rated R for language, some violence and sexual content) is not as tightly executed or as cleverly structured as something like Memento , and it suffers from some awkward moments (most involving Luvlee). Theres also a local cop who comes across as a bit too dumb and an ending thats more complicated than it probably needs to be. Yet overall, The Lookout delivers a fine contemporary noir tale with a lead character thats more richly drawn than most. Plus it boasts yet another wonderfully nuanced performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whos quickly becoming one of my favorite new actors. Most commendable is his penchant for rejecting conventional Hollywood stardom in favor of taking on challenging roles in solid independent films. Too bad more actors and filmmakers dont choose this path. So kudos to Gordon-Levitt and be on the lookout for whatever he does next.

Companion viewing: Memento, Out of the Past, Mysterious Skin, Brick, Something Wild

Listen to the Film Club of the Air discussion about The Lookout.

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