I was never much of a "3rd Rock from the Sun" fan, and so the leap that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made from that silly sitcom to this engrossing character study seemed to me like a hop across the Grand Canyon. Maybe the difference lies in the script. "The Lookout" is billed as a "gritty, high-tension crime thriller," but it's as offbeat and intelligent as "The Usual Suspects." In fact, about 20 minutes into the film I picked up the Blu-ray box to read the back, thinking, When does the bank heist come in?
It does, of course, but we never lose sight of the fact that the story is really about the rehabilitation of a brain-injured young man named Chris who, despite being unable to perform such simple tasks as opening a can, ends up being recruited to be the "lookout" for a robbery at the bank where he works as a night janitor.
Writer Scott Frank ("Minority Report," "Get Shorty") decided to direct his own screenplay, this time--a first for him. Although on the commentary track he says, "Welcome to another episode of How the Rookie Director Screwed Up and introduces director of photography Alar Kivilo as "the man who saved my bacon," the truth is that this first-timer has crafted a film that a director would be proud of if it were his 20th attempt.
Frank's script and solid performances make "The Lookout" engrossing, but the unexpected dry humor makes it fun. Much of the wit comes from the character of Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a gently acerbic blind man whom the rehab center has paired with Chris. The men share an apartment, with Lewis reminding Chris to do this or that, usually with his tongue-in-cheek. It's the kind of attitude that I suspect many people with disabilities wish the rest of the world had. Lewis recognizes both his and Chris's limitations, but that doesn't stop him from teasing Chris or treating him the way he would any other person. When they're on-camera together, you can really feel a bond between them and buy into each of their injury-induced conditions. Both Daniels and Gordon-Levitt really grab onto their characters and inhabit them for the whole 99 minutes.
Once we do get to the heist, some of the standard conventions creep in, like the long-haired gunman with the long black waistcoat (Greg Dunham) or the friendly deputy sheriff who brings donuts to Chris every night he's at work. The former is the film's amoral baddie, while the latter is marked for trouble from the minute you hear him talk excitedly about his pregnant wife. But it all comes together nicely, and though the film meanders, you never get too impatient with it because the focus is on Chris and his world. Showing all of it only reinforces the complexity of his simplified life, and gives us a round character rather than a flat one. We see the flashbacks Chris has to when he was a high school hockey star, and flashbacks to that night when he drove his car at top speed into a stalled columbine. We watch him interact with the woman assigned to be his case worker, and we see how he interacts with his wealthy parents ("I smell money," Lewis quips as he's brought there to dine for the first time). Veterans Bruce McGill and Alberta Watson do a fine job as Chris's parents, who haven't still quite figured out how to relate to him as well as Lewis has.
And yes, we get Chris's interaction with the gang that has been casing the bank where he works. One of them, Gary (Matthew Goode), comes to his rescue at a bar when the tender tries to cop a $17 tip, and pretends not only to have had a head injury himself, but also to have gone to the same high school and even dated his sister. As Chris moves through each of these worlds, you can't help but admire the subtle shifts in personality and behavior that Gordon-Levit engineers.
You also have to admire the climax that Frank finally delivers, with its believable twists and turns. Frank adapted the screenplay to "Get Shorty" from Elmore Leonard's novel, and it's a solid entry in the genre. But "The Lookout" is even more striking because of its complexity and humanist core.
Solid, but unspectacular. That's the best way to describe the Hi Def picture. Partly, it's because so many scenes were shot with soft-focus backgrounds, but there's also a slight bit of grain that occasionally turns up. Expectations for Blu-ray and HD-DVD are high, but movie lovers have too remember that everything still depends on the original source materials. And if something wasn't shot in digital, you've still got transfer issues. That said, the colors appear to be at 90 percent or so saturation, and the black levels are strong enough to where we're able to see a good amount of detail, even in shadows. The picture is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
English PCM 5.1 uncompressed sound really spreads the audio across all five or six speakers (I don't have a subwoofer because my speakers are capable of getting the low range without it). When gunshots finally ring, it's so real it's startling.
The danger of teaming with your director of photography for the commentary track is that too much of your time can be spent discussing where what was shot and which lens or method was used. Fans who live for behind-the-scenes anecdotes won't get nearly enough to satisfy you in this commentary--though there are some fun stories. A "making of" featurette gives a little broader view. But my favorite bonus feature was "Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt," in which we're told the amount of research that went into this film. Everything you see was based on real brain-damaged people.
Rounding out the extras is that one I can never understand, the "movie showcase" that takes you to "select movie scenes that showcase the ultimate in high definition picture and sound." Come on. This is the next generation of home video. We expect the whole movie to be one big showcase, don't we?
"The Lookout" is a film that commands not just our attention, but our compassion as well. Without being preachy, it gives us a better look into the lives of those with disabilities . . . and it does so without sacrificing any of the tension viewers hope will accompany a crime thriller.