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Scott Frank has script credits for about a dozen movies, but the one that rallied mainstream critics was Out of Sight, the darker of his two Elmore Leonard adaptations. (The lighter one, Get Shorty, sold more tickets.) So perhaps it’s not coincidental that Frank’s debut as a writer-director, The Lookout, emulates Out of Sight’s mix of black humor, downbeat vibe, and brutal violence. The principal deviation is that the new film’s hero is not a George Clooney–style smoothie but an addled young wreck.
The movie opens with fireflies in a field, a beguiling sight that soon leads to disaster. Driving with adolescent abandon down a country road, high-school hockey star and local king-of-the-world Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) turns off the headlights to wow his passengers with the swarms of twinkling insects. He flips the lights back on just in time to run into a massive harvesting machine, killing two friends and maiming himself and his girlfriend. (He could have hit the combine in the dark, but that wouldn’t have been very cinematic.) Not all the facts of the crash are detailed in the prologue, but they’re filled in by (too many) flashbacks to Chris’ defining trauma.
Four years later, the brain-damaged protagonist attends a Kansas City “life skills center” and shares an apartment with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), an acerbic blind man who tries to help Chris focus on routine tasks like making dinner. Chris works as a janitor at a small-town bank, a job chosen for its simplicity. Of course, the job brings a complication: Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), a strutting ex-con who flatters Chris by remembering him from his sports-god days at their old high school. Gary introduces Chris to Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), a cooing former stripper whose new gig is to seduce the janitor into joining the gang that will rob the bank. Chris agrees, spurred by his wealthy father’s refusal to fund Lewis’ dream: a diner called Lew’s Your Lunch. (Dad’s surely right about this, although the logic of the movie argues that the café is a great idea.) It’s not until the robbery is underway that Chris changes his mind, a turnabout that threatens the lives of his few pals, including Lewis.
Chris tries to organize his life by writing notes to himself, which is why The Lookout suggests a rustic Memento. The two films have something else in common: They become steadily more conventional as they move from surprise openings to routine endings. The Lookout’s cold, gray landscape—ably photographed by Alar Kivilo—is familiar from many evil-comes-to-the-prairie pictures, and its triumph-of-the-underdog plot is as commonplace as its characters: the uptight rich parents, the bad girl with a twinge of conscience, the disabled person with attitude, and the blind man with exceptional insight. (Lewis combines the last two roles, and Daniels does a scene-stealing job of playing up the attitudinal side.) The main thing that distinguishes the movie is its hero’s regret and befuddlement, which Gordon-Levitt renders convincingly—as long as Frank’s script lets him. Just when the pressure is greatest, however, the perpetually confused Chris finds himself able to make and follow a plan. Narratively, that’s not big-time larceny, but it is a bit of a cheat.