Best known as the kid from "3rd Rock From the Sun" and from indies such as "Brick" and "Mysterious Skin," the boyish 26-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a brain-damaged survivor of a very bad accident in an engrossing new crime drama called "The Lookout." He's good in it. His co-stars are even better, chief among them Jeff Daniels as the young man's exuberantly surly blind roommate, who dreams of opening his own restaurant and of all the ladies who might stop by.
"The Lookout" makes a lot out of little things. It's small but satisfying, and you're pleased to find yourself in the company of a writer who, in his first-time venture behind the camera, knows what he's doing, doesn't showboat yet doesn't turn to stone, and plays straight into the tangy strengths of his script.
Scott Frank is the writer-director, and his protagonist is a reckless golden boy whose life takes a bad turn just when it should be soaring. The prologue depicts a nighttime joy ride taken by Chris, his girlfriend and two others, as they speed down Kansas back roads with the headlights off, the better to see the fireflies. One collision later, two of the kids are dead, and Chris is left with severely limited cognitive abilities.
Cut to several years in the future. Chris lives day to day with the Daniels character, who keeps him honest and on course, or tries, with the help of Chris' "life skills" caseworker (Carla Gugino). His routine involves a series of to-do lists and exercises in controlling a volatile temper. Then, one night in a bar, an old high school acquaintance re-enters his life. Matthew Goode, the pip-pip tennis-anyone charmer from "Match Point," plays the eerily friendly Gary, who hangs around with an ex-stripper (Isla Fisher). Both of them remember Chris' hockey glory days, fondly. Suspiciously fondly. Gary has been casing various banks in the area, and the one where Chris works seems ripe for the picking, if only they can seduce Chris into the plan.
Frank's dialogue owes a little something to Elmore Leonard, but it's less comic and heavily brocaded. If anything holds back "The Lookout," it's a somewhat overdetermined quality; the characters are all compelling enough to make you wish they had more to do unrelated to the plot. Yet when the shooting starts in that memorably lonesome little bank, Frank (who adapted Leonard's "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight") ensures that we have a sizable investment in the characters' various outcomes, fair or foul.
This is harder than it sounds: It's easy to get an audience revved up about seeing bad people die richly deserved R-rated deaths--that's what pays for half the hillside perches in Malibu--but it's harder to keep violence human-scaled and dramatically meaningful. Frank doesn't reinvent any formulas with "The Lookout," but neither does he telegraph every turn in his story. And if there's a tiny whiff of surfer-dude in Gordon-Levitt's Chris (Ashton Holmes, the bullied son in "A History of Violence," would've been perfect), he nonetheless grounds the film as a man set up as a patsy but unwilling to play that part when things get toughest.
Written and directed by Scott Frank; photographed by Alar Kivilo; edited by Jill Savitt; music by James Newton Howard; production design by David Brisbin; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurence Mark, Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (for language, some violence and sexual content).
Chris Pratt - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Lewis - Jeff Daniels
Gary Spargo - Matthew Goode
Luvlee Lemons - Isla Fisher
Janet - Carla Gugino