Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"The Lookout" (2007) Dir: Scott Frank

What I Remember:

“The Lookout” will be my most recent film re-watched in this series. I should have a pretty good idea of what it was about. 

Since this entire blog is about how memory serves, I wonder how well I recall this movie! I mean it's only been 10 years, right? OK, but in all candor I am now the guy who goes up to the kitchen from my basement studio about 38 times a day to do something, and when I get to the kitchen I have completely forgotten what that was. At this point I head back down to the studio to see if something down there jogs the old grey matter. When it does, I am back upstairs and the whole process repeats itself. 

I call this " The Geezer Stairmaster".

This was a film I checked out after being impressed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance in “Brick”. I was blown away with how JGL handled the difficult part of Sam Spade in high school. I saw a few positive reviews of “The Lookout” and decided to seek it out. 

It felt like the film hardly had a release, pretty much going from a few weeks in Indie houses directly to pay TV. The cast was pretty impressive, with an always solid Jeff Daniels and a young star in Matthew Goode. It also had young Isla Fisher, fresh off her great comic turn in “The Wedding Crashers”. 

I remember “The Lookout” as a strong suspense film, with fine acting and script, which only suffered from a plot device that was a touch sketchy; our hero and his sidekick are both disabled. The hero has a memory defect not unlike the hero in “Memento", and his sidekick is…..yep…..blind. It’s always a difficult sell for me when I am one or two steps ahead of the protagonist, but at the same time, I was never one or two steps ahead of this plot. I wonder if a second look will reinforce this take, or maybe simply lead me to feel that the devices are too forced to make this an entertaining watch. 

After re-watching:

"I get turned down more times than the beds at the Holiday Inn." Lewis


Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a twenty-something bank janitor who was once a high school golden boy and hockey star. A car accident that was his fault killed two friends, maimed his girlfriend and caused him severe brain damage. He now lives with an older blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels) who helps him cope with his faulty memory and organizational skills. When Chris meets Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) in a bar, Gary befriends Chris, and convinces him that he should be more than he is. Gary hooks Chris up with Luvlee (Isla Fisher) and then persuades Chris to abet him in robbing the bank for which Chris works.


I like it when the bad guy is really smart. I mean it's not any great feat for our hero to trip up a dumb ass villain. The bad guy has got to be a trickster, the devil incarnate. I keep going back to the Coens' version of "True Grit", wherein the bad guys are so completely ignorant and clueless that a 12 year old girl outsmarts them at every turn. I just wasn't that invested in the film, even if it's usually true that criminals are morons. 
Matthew Goode's Gary is smart, charming and edgy. He has found the perfect situation: a small town bank with little police activity, and a night janitor who has brain damage and is easily addled. The stakes are high, for certain. You are quickly aware that Chris is being used, especially so when you see Luvlee and Gary embracing in the window as they watch Chris drive away from their hideout.
Gary has this thing plotted out perfectly- in particular how he brings Chris into the fold. He acts like he knows Chris' sister, and knows all about Chris' story, from hockey hero to confused janitor. He throws Luvlee at him in the guise of a star-struck fan. Then he appeals to Chris' ego by pointing out that the Pratt parents have no faith in the ability of their brain damaged son. There is no way Chris can resist this onslaught. 

The wild card in all this is Lewis, the golden hearted blind man. He is aware of the situation from the get go. 
He knows Chris is on the verge of making a stupid decision, but this powerful appeal to Chris' ego, to his sense of deprivation, is hard to overcome. It just reminds me so much of how we are trying to show the current electorate that voting for Donald Trump, thanks to their sense of disappointment in the direction of our government, would be a terrible decision. They will not listen.

The film is densely and intricately plotted, with some great foreshadowing and Hitchcockian hints. Due to his disability, Chris is constantly locking his keys in his car. When he realizes he has done this, he remembers that He is carriying around a spare in his shoe. This little scene plays out twice. Later, during the robbery, Chris tries to get away from a shoutout with the cops, and realizes he can't use his car to get away, since he has again locked the keys in it. No time for him to take off his shoe and grab the spare, so he jumps in the wide open getaway car. The money has already been loaded in, and the driver is dead. So now Chris realizes he has the money. He also sees that there is lye in the back, and puts it together that they were intending to kill him after the robbery. There are a lot more details like this, and I appreciated them all. 


Both Sam Mendes and David Fincher were slated at one time to direct "The Lookout", but both dropped out. After Fincher left, Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplay installed himself as director. 
The film is not striking looking....the only really cinematic moments are the opening when you see the car crash and the events leading up to it, and during the heist itself when the pane glass windows of the bank are used to hide and reveal the robbers to "Officer Donut". 
This is not to say that it is a pedestrian job; if anything it feels very self assured and controlled for a first directorial effort. There is no awkwardness in performances or pacing. No really huge errors that I can see, other than there's no way the sun would be up at 6:00 AM in Kansas City around Christmas time.

Descriptive buzzwords for this movie would be "tight", "small", "tense". Sounds like one of my drunk relatives.

There is one loose end, however, and it’s the wordless character named Bone. He is supposedly “Uncle” Bone, but we never find out if it’s a term of endearment, or if he’s an actual relative of one of the posse. The film would have been fine without him. He wears a black hat and sunglasses, wields a shotgun, and is just generally menacing. He has no backstory. Actually he has no story at all. He could just as well have been a Doberman Pinscher. Even a brain damaged guy like Chris should have taken one look at this guy and said, “Gee, Gary, you’re charming, and Luvlee is doing a great job waxing my board, but seriously, this Bone guy is a scary mofo and I think I’m going back to hang out with my blind friend.” In what feels like a realistic thriller, having a part like Bone is like having a cartoon character drawn in a la Roger Rabbit.

Most people compare this to “Memento”, particularly in that the lead character must constantly write stuff down (in Memento he actually tattoos things so they can’t be lost) to remember what is necessary. In the case of “The Lookout”, Chris has a little reporter’s notebook pad, and it comes into play later on in the film.  In “Memento' we have the added gimmick of the story being told backwards. It takes about 1/3 of the film to figure out that this is what is happening, so it makes for addled audiences. I liked the device myself; it made me feel closer to the protagonist in his confusion, and also had the additional benefit of making me feel smart when I figured it out. 

The mostly unmemorable score is by Hollywood veteran James Newton Howard. It’s probably a bit too prevalent, I could have used less throughout, but it is never distracting, which for a thriller in the Aughties is rare indeed. The film would have been better served by a moody theme that would have reflected some of these dark streets of Kansas City’s lower echelons, and the small town desolation of the bank and farm hideouts. 


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has surely proven himself as a leading man in the past decade. His performances in “Brick” and “The Lookout” were breakthroughs; both had their quirks which he pulled off convincingly. Apparently during the filming of “The Lookout”, he shot many of the scenes in a sleep deprived state to help give him the sense of disorientation. And yes, now that I know that, it sure does seem like he is exhausted a lot. I think it worked, though his confusion is still a bit underplayed. He does a decent job showing the frustration that he has with his condition. 

Playing a sightless character is one of the more difficult jobs an actor can pull off. I think having a real person to model after such as Jamie Foxx did in “Ray” can help. Jeff Daniels went to a Blind Training Center in Michigan to learn about how blind people get around and look while they are doing basic acts such as cooking. Whatever his method, he pulled it off phenomenally well. He is also given some of the best lines in the film, and his timing is impeccable. 

As good as JGL and Daniels are, the real prize goes to Matthew Goode, whom I only had seen before in “Match Point”, wherein he played a wimpy Brit who’s fiancĂ© strays with a tennis pro. He’s kind of the classic upper class twit in the Woody Allen film. You’d have no clue from his performance in “Match Point” how well he could play this sinister, charming role of Gary Spargo. His midwest accent is pristine, and even at his most dastardly moments, he is still attractive and engaging. Subsequently Goode was the titular character in “Stoker”, which is pretty much the same guy as Gary….a good looking snake in the grass. Maybe that’s where he belongs.

Isla Fisher and Alex Borstein are two very gifted comic actresses, but sadly both are not utilized to their maximum in this film. The rest of the cast does not get in the way (except of course Bone), and one nice turn is Officer Donut (Ted), played goofily but convincingly by Sergio Di Zio. 


No, not a masterpiece at all, but “The Lookout” is one to watch if you catch it on one of the pay cable stations. It is a very entertaining film, with a well crafted script and story. The 3 leads are well cast and for a first time director, Scott Frank manages to stay out of their way. This is one of those good little films that almost everybody missed. That is unfortunate, because it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the Indie thrillers I’ve seen since its release.

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭