Saturday, February 7, 2009

Good Looking Out

The Lookout
Netflix via XBox 360

He hasn't gotten the universal outpouring of praise and nominations attending a Ryan Gosling yet, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt has built himself up a real solid roster of films in the past few years. Few other actors in his age bracket could have sold the utterly unique Brick, and his performance in the little-seen Manic was the most realistic fictional take on a mental hospital inmate I've yet seen. (Roughly four billion times more realistic than Girl, Interrupted.) Gordon-Levitt tends to choose roles where his character is carrying a weight of some sort -- abuse victims, trauma cases, heroes burdened by loss. What I admired most about his role in Manic was the realistic way in which his character hid from past abuses. A lesser actor would force the backstory into every scene, while Gordon-Levitt acted like a real kid in a mental institution -- trying to show a brave face until the pressures overwhelmed. You should really see Manic before you see The Lookout, since the former is unforgettable while the latter is an above-average genre film.

Gordon-Levitt, along with fine supporting work from Jeff Daniels and Matthew Goode, elevates The Lookout. As a bank job picture it's not terribly exciting -- the sleepy suburban Kansas City bank where Gordon-Levitt's Chris Pratt works is an easy mark, which is the whole point. The group of local thugs led by Goode's greasily charming Gary Spargo (and given muscle by a memorable, almost silent Greg Dunham as the shotgun-wielding Bone) is definitely aiming for low-hanging fruit, which is exactly what Pratt qualifies as. On the night of senior prom, he was driving on the highway with his headlights off and ran head-on into a stalled combine. Two of his friends were killed and his then-girlfriend crippled. Chris himself was thrown 90 feet and suffered head injuries which make it difficult for him to express himself clearly or remember long chains of instructions.

As the night watchman, he has pieces of cardboard with his duties written on them attached to his desk and the janitor's cart. He carries a little notebook in which he writes down everything from other people's pickup lines to the duties for the teller job to which he aspires. He also tends to pass out for long stretches from time to time, which is a difficult hurdle for bank tellers and bank robbers alike. Gordon-Levitt makes very judicious choices in bringing this character to life. Another actor could have played the same lines quite differently, stuttering and using malaprops and making Chris's disability more of an up-front presence in the film. But that wouldn't meet the tone of The Lookout, which is languid and pleasingly midwestern. Gordon-Levitt approaches the character by simply giving a beat or two before most longer lines, and only really getting himself tongue-tied when he has longer speeches (or is dealing with women, which is another issue).

Goode is a nice counterbalance to Gordon-Levitt; in many ways his Gary is what cocky BMOC Chris would have become had it not been for his accident. This is the first major role I've seen Goode in and I'm pleased to say he's quite, if you'll excuse me, good. He's playing Ozymandias in Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen, and I named my cat Ozymandias. With a story that spans three decades and a brain-bending mixed-media presentation, I don't know if Watchmen will work as a movie. Goode has the gravitas to play the smartest man in the world, and he's certainly handsome enough for action figures.

As for The Lookout, it's mostly a character study with the heist trope hung on to give the plot shape. A few things don't work. First-time director Scott Frank has the right hands-off style for the many quiet scenes, but he doesn't cut the few action sequences with nearly enough clarity. There's one death of a likable supporting character that doesn't get the resolution it requires. The relationship between Chris and his family doesn't play; the dialogue suggests that they're terribly estranged but it seems by their behavior that they love him to death and they're conflicted waiting for him to figure out his life on his own. After a Thanksgiving dinner sequence that isn't anywhere near as awkward as the plot is supposed to demand, Daniels' character (Chris's blind roommate, who's no saint nor sage) says they should stop visiting his family. It's pretty much the only line Daniels has in the film that doesn't land.

The biggest problem with The Lookout is its attitude towards women. Women in this movie are objects bought and paid for, from Carla Gugino's one scene as Chris's caseworker to Isla Fisher's unflattering role as Luvlee, the stripper whom Gary essentially instructs to sleep with Chris in order to secure his help with the heist. The girl who lost her leg in the car accident never forgives Chris, and the implication is a shallow one -- he ruined her beauty. It would be nice if Frank had developed further Chris's relationships with some of the few positive females in the movie, like Alex (Lois Griffin) Borstein's day teller, his mother, or his sister. But the director/writer is clearly more comfortable writing for male voices. His high-water mark as a screenwriter, Out of Sight, concerned itself with tough guys and women who talked and acted like tough guys.

To conclude, though, it's worth mentioning that with about twenty minutes left in The Lookout I didn't know whether Frank had an ending. Then things all came together, with the exception of that one side character who gets clipped and forgotten. Given the opportunity to take the money and run Chris makes the right decision and suddenly his problems with his family, his frustrations with his job, and his feelings of persecution seem manageable. A real good movie with another fine performance from a stellar young actor.

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