Film: Head Games

'The Lookout' tweaks familiar crime-drama formulas


Joseph Gordon-Levitt (center) and Matthew Goode share a beer in Scott Frank's subtle crime drama, The Lookout.

Seven years ago, Christopher Nolan introduced audiences to a very special amnesiac named Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento. Leonard lacked the capacity to create lasting short-term memories — a debilitating situation in and of itself, but his life was further complicated by his desire to solve the mystery of his wife's murder in a brutal attack, which left Leonard in his present state.

His intensely focused drive led to a systematic mapping out of his current experiences and the clues he was compiling. In a brilliant visual stroke, he set upon using his body as a notepad, creating a series of homemade tattoos that looked like a complex mathematical proof.

Now it seems everyone in film has turned to jotting down notes in order to keep things straight. The difference is that there's far less real importance, and the methods illustrate this.

The year started off with Cedric the Entertainer scribbling away like some kid at IHOP with crayons on the rollout paper tablecloth in Code Name: The Cleaner. Just a few weeks ago, Sandra Bullock tried to break the prescient code in Premonition, also with markers and poster board. At least The Cleaner clearly played the kiddie map for laughs. Premonition, on the other hand, wants to be taken seriously, but it can't draw up a worthy blueprint.

First-time director Scott Frank (better known as a screenwriter for Get Shorty and Out of Sight) makes a more mature return to Memento's documenting tools. The Lookout also appropriates the crime-drama milieu along with the brain trauma of its protagonist. In this case, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a promising high school athlete until a foolish car accident leaves him, like Memento's Leonard, unable to retain short-term experiences for longer than five-to-10-minute intervals, which means he needs to take and follow careful notes just to make it through the day.

Pearce captured the brutal efficiency in Leonard's approach, the single-minded adherence to compiling facts. Gordon-Levitt, who has leapt from the television series silliness of 3rd Rock from the Sun to indie cred in Mysterious Skin and Brick, delves into the emotional imbalance inherent in the situation of a young man struggling to reconcile who he was with the person he is, an identity prison he will likely will remain locked inside forever.

Yet Frank doesn't stop there. He drags Chris into the orbit of a ragtag crew of robbers plotting a bank heist that should be foolproof but, obviously, is far from it. Led by wannabe tough Gary (Matthew Goode, probably seeking to escape sweet-guy typecasting), the gang seeks to enlist Chris to serve as the lookout at the small farming bank where he works nights as a janitor by offering him a return to normalcy. They hook him up with a girl named Luvlee (Isla Fisher) and invite him to raging house parties before springing the plan on him. But the real hook is the promise of independence, and it is alluring to Chris.

His life is a series of well-rehearsed routines. He lives with an older blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) who is hip and quick-witted, though obviously not quite whole either. Chris' family has the means to make his life comfortable, but they don't understand that he longs for something more, something he can't seem to recall long enough to express it to them.

Lurking on the fringe is his former girlfriend who was with him on that fateful night and who lives with her own tragic consequences. Chris finds himself drawn ever closer to her and then repelled just as quickly through guilt and shame.

Chris walks us through his routines, scratching out and replaying certain elements, trial-and-error-like until he gets the steps right. He is attempting to move forward through his day into what he hopes will become the life he might have dreamed up once upon a time.

The set-up, though, is an assignment in which Chris and others like him are documenting their daily narratives. Later on his roommate tweaks the assignment by directing Chris to start from the end rather than the beginning. The reverse-order storytelling device assumes a known ending and allows Chris to simply retrace his steps, meaning that he gets to write or plan from a position of knowledge.

Thus it makes sense that Chris succumbs to the scheme and everything that happens afterward offers further proof of Frank's sturdily constructed foundation and Gordon-Levitt's affecting performance.

The Lookout takes what audiences know and expect from crime-thrillers and backtracks through the map. The final third of the movie connects all of the dots quickly and satisfactorily enough, although there's a lack of intensity because ultimately we've seen this sketch before. Frank is less concerned with head-scratching twists than providing us with a subtle emotional payoff. Grade: B

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