As the screenwriter of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, writer/director Scott Frank knows his way around a caper movie, which helps give him a sure hand when dealing with the bank heist elements of The Lookout, but it’s the human drama that elevates this film to more insightful level. This is a character study framed in the traditional structure of a crime story and somewhat more successful in the first element than it is in the second.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a star high school hockey player before a lapse of judgment leads to a tragic car accident that kills two classmates and leaves Chris with a debilitating brain injury that leaves him with short term memory loss. Four years later, he’s barely functioning, dependent on a notebook to get through even the most ordinary day. He’s working as a bank janitor with probably futile dreams of being a teller someday and his only friend is Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a blind telephone operator with dreams of opening his own restaurant. Chris is completely dependent on him and his wealthy family to get by from day to day.
This sense of helplessness and lack of control make him an easy mark for Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who claims to be an old boyfriend of Chris’ sister and an admirer of Chris from his hockey-playing days. Chris finds himself a part of Gary’s circle of friends and the object of physical affection from a stripper named Luvlee (Isla Fisher). This sense of inclusion makes Chris vulnerable to Gary’s plan to rob the bank where Chris works just when the cash for farm loans is in the vault.
This film takes its time getting to the robbery caper, allowing us to experience Chris’ world and how it is different from what most of us enjoy from day to day. He is an empathetic lead and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a wonderfully specific performance as this damaged but still intelligent young man. As Gary, Matthew Goode exudes a charismatic lowlife charm, making it very believable that anyone could get swept up into his orbit.
Jeff Daniels gives another one of his trademark, very vivid and individualized supporting performances. It’s probably a bit of a cliché that the blind character sees the most clearly through the various manners of deception. Having blinded by poor ventilation when he was cooking meth, Lewis has seen dozens of Garys and Luvlees come and go but Chris isn’t about to give up his new circle of friends based on his friend’s hard-earned wisdom.
The mixture of a crime movie with short-term memory loss probably evokes thoughts of Chris Nolan’s Memento but this far less gimmicky film has very little in common with the other. The film doesn’t dwell excessively on the details of the robbery. This isn’t a white trash Oceans 11, but a closely observed story of a person trying to reclaim power over his own life and making some rather poor decisions in the process. This is a good thing, because the ending of the movie doesn’t complete rise above cliché but by this time, we’re gotten close enough to our characters that their fate matters more to us than a slightly standard wrap-up to the plot.