The Shaft-esque cymbals begin to sound. Stilted, coupled bass notes follow. A steady, twinkling guitar riff resonates underneath it all. The camera fades in to the site of lightning bugs, by the thousands, set against a twilight sky. We’re soon to be introduced to the main character of The Lookout, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and little do we know that the instrumentation of My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday” has already told us so much about the film we’re about to see.
Scott Frank, screenwriter of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, proves that he’s more than just an adapter to great Elmore Leonard novels as he writes and directs The Lookout, a heist film about a brain-damaged janitor at a Kansas City bank. Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a former high school hockey star who has a car accident that kills some of his friends and leaves him permanently damaged. But even with significant brain injuries Chris continues to live a regular life by holding down a job and attempting to open a restaurant with his blind roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels), despite not being able to think linearally and do simple tasks without the highest degree of difficulty. A band of bank robbers (led by Match Point star Matthew Goode) see Chris’s weakness and attempt to use him as the lookout for their planned heist.
The movie has a lot of terrific moments and I began this review by talking about the inclusion of the My Morning Jacket song so that I can say this. There hasn’t been as proper a marriage of song and scene that I can remember in a long time. Those cymbals right at the beginning do sound a lot like the theme from Shaft–this helps to set up that action movie, criminals-run-wild vibe. The isolated bass notes set up Chris’s ho-hum state, symbolizing his disconnect with the rest of the world. The lightning bugs and whimsical guitar riff represent the hope that lies underneath it all. It’s impressive that a first-time director could layer so much without having any dialogue, an area that has always been his specialty until now.
Even though this is a heist movie it’s a more effective character study, and Frank gets that. The bank robbers and the femme fatale, who goes by the name of Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), are actually poorly developed and woefully written characters. They’re formulaic and heist-movie-standard. There’s the cunning manipulist Gary Spargo (Goode) and his darkly bespectacled, ominous henchman who goes by the name of “Bones.” Then problem is Frank gets sloppy with these characters and really has no affection for them. The scenes between Chris and the wise Lewis are magnificent and thoughtful; the scenes between Chris and the bank robbers are merely expositional.
That being said, whatever the situation, Gordon-Levitt is outstanding. He’s emerged as the best young actor in Hollywood with a trifecta of fantastic performances over the past few years–2004′s Mysterious Skin, 2005′s Brick, and The Lookout. Hard to believe that he got his start on “3rd Rock from the Sun” and Angels in the Outfied. However, Gordon-Levitt is nearly outshined by Daniels, who gives one of the most overlooked performances of 2007. The way he holds Chris up and protects him, most notably in a scene where he absolutely deconstructs and cuts down Luvlee, is fantastic. That may have been an easy task for Daniels, though, because Fisher is pretty bad in this film. Frank keeps alluding to something that might be bubbling under the surface of Luvlee–be it her feelings for Chris or feelings for/against the heist–and never explores inward. It’s either the director’s fault or the actresses for not having the talent to convey such emotions or depth.
When The Lookout tries to be an action film it doesn’t necessarily succeed, but when its an intimate character study it sizzles. The DVD features are pretty nice as well. There’s a making off and director’s commentary that add a little more insight. The documentary that’s really excellent is a short one entitled “Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt.” Here we find out that Gordon-Levitt got the role an astounding 8 months before filming began so took the time to really explore the character. He spent a lot of time with patients suffering from brain injuries and took in just how hard it is for them to do simple tasks. Gordon-Levitt spoke about how he just tried to make things harder for his brain, mostly by just going long periods of time without sleeping. His dedication to the character comes through in the film and his work pays off more than any bank heist ever could.
High-fives: Fantastic performances from Jeff Daniels and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, intimate character portrayals, stunning cinematography that highlights the snowy Kansas City landscape and lightning bugs on a dark night.
No-fives: Formulaic action, lack of interesting antagonists, predictable ending.