The Lookout 

Four stars (R)

The Lookout is a character study turned heist film, written and directed by Scott Frank, the man who adapted Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Out of Sight. For his directoral feature debut, Frank has crafted a film that is darker and more quietly insidious. I loved the first two-thirds of the movie without qualifications. Great stuff, just great. The final third, which focuses on a bank robbery, is less successful. Frank is much more adept crafting characters and conversations than laying out a crime and its aftermath. His finale is cumbersome and lacks the finesse of what came before, but luckily, by that time I was so invested in the film that I merely noted the caper-related contrivances without feeling particularly bothered by them.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a good-looking, charismatic well-to-do high-school hockey star with the world at his doorstep. Then one night, while driving stupid on a double date, Chris almost gets killed in a car wreck. The other couple dies, his girlfriend is maimed and he suffers a head injury leaving him with significant brain damage.

Cut to a few years later. Chris remains easily disorientated and his memory is so poor that he carries a notebook to remind him of the simplest of tasks. He shares an apartment with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a blind guy who serves as both his friend and mentor. Chris works as a janitor at a small bank, dreaming of someday becoming a teller.

If this all sounds awfully dour, trust me, it isn’t. The characters are beautifully written and the actors are outstanding. Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment, Something Wild, Pleasantville) is a known treasure and his performance is a snarky delight. As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, best known as the youngest alien in Third Rock from the Sun, if you haven’t seen him perform as an adult, you are in for a shock. The kid is both an excellent character actor and a movie star waiting to happen.

He makes you feel every bit of Chris Pratt’s pain, yearning, confusion and guilt – remember, he was responsible for the accident. The interplay between Chris and Lewis is engrossing and always credible. The encounters between Chris and others – his family, his boss, old friends, his ex-girlfriend – are mesmerizing. Watch how others deal with the addled man. Watch how others deal with an addled man who brought it on himself. Heartbreaking.

The small town atmosphere is nicely drawn by Frank, aided by a subtle score from James Newton Howard. After presented a meticulous portrait of Chris and his world, Frank introduces the crime aspect. An encounter with Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, doing fine work), an old school acquaintance, leads to new friends, including ex-stripper Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). All too soon, Chris learns that Gary is part of a gang that has been casing banks, including the one where he works.

I’ll leave it at that. The planning and execution of the bank job is tense and gripping, despite an overreliance on coincedence, but for me, the most satisfying part of The Lookout, by far, is the people. My advice, come for the character studies, stay for the thriller.

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