“The Lookout” may look like just another bank heist caper, but it’s actually a beautifully drawn character drama, and the rare film that manages to balance subtlety with suspense.
Then again, that shouldn’t seem too surprising coming from longtime screenwriter Scott Frank, an Oscar nominee for Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” who also wrote the scripts for “Get Shorty” and “Minority Report,” among many others.
“The Lookout” also marks Frank’s debut as a director, and he shows a keen instinct for creating a taut mood and eliciting strong performances from his talented actors, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Formerly the youngest cast member of TV’s wonderfully absurd comedy “3rd Rock From the Sun,” Gordon-Levitt is developing into an intriguing performer of unexpected depth. He was the best thing about 2005’s “Brick,” a film noir set in a high school that was admirable mostly for its ambition. There’s an irresistible confidence about him; he makes even the most complex roles look effortless.
Here, Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a once-promising high school athlete who suffers a head injury in a dramatic car crash that leaves him with short-term memory loss. Frank sucks us in early with his pacing as he introduces us to Chris’ life, which consists of a daily routine he must remind himself to run through. His use of voiceover is exceptionally effective in its rhythm and restraint.
As part of his rehab, Chris has been paired with a blind man, with whom he shares a spare downtown apartment. This idea alone could have been painfully feel-good — these two damaged, brave men helping each other navigate the intricacies of life — but as played by a randy Jeff Daniels, it’s mainly a source of dark comic relief.
One night several years after his accident, Chris makes some dangerous new friends at a bar who eventually ask him to help them rob the bank where he works as a night janitor — to serve as the lookout.
Gary (Matthew Goode) buddies up to him and treats him like one of the guys, something Chris hasn’t experienced in a long time. (And Goode, the British actor who’s previously played pretty boys in “Match Point” and “Chasing Liberty,” is unrecognizable here, unexpectedly brash and alive.)
Meanwhile, a stripper with a heart of gold named Luvlee (Isla Fisher, who was so adorable in “Wedding Crashers”) kills him with kindness, makes him feel like the big man on campus he once was. And that’s something else he hasn’t experienced in a long time.
What’s so great about Frank’s script — one of the many things that are so great about it — is the nuance with which he depicts Chris’ relationship with his new friends. Because they truly become friends, at least in his mind. They feel more like family. They’re probably bad people, but they’re also a hell of a lot of fun to hang around, which is seductive and exciting for him and for us. They make him happy — and we grow to like Chris so much, we want to see him happy.
Trying to figure out whether they care about him at all, or are just using him, is one of the film’s great joys. Frank gives us enough credit as an audience to interpret his characters’ actions for ourselves.
Whether these guys can pull off the robbery with Chris’ help provides plenty of thrilling moments, but ultimately it’s just a vehicle, a device for delving into the more compelling issue of how the robbery changes Chris, for better and for worse. Similar to slowly simmering crime dramas like “Fargo” and “A Simple Plan,” “The Lookout” explores how far ordinary people will go when they find themselves in extraordinary situations.
There are no easy answers in this small gem of a picture. And except for a couple of coincidences that feel a bit too convenient, the script is pretty close to perfect.