What would you do if your entire life as you know it was changed in the blink of an eye? It doesn't take much, really ... just a few minutes of bad judgment and a smattering of bad luck and BOOM! -- everything's changed. The Lookout, directed by Oscar-nommed screenwriter Scott Frank in his directorial debut, turns a lens to that question through the story of Chris Pratt (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt), one-time high school ice hockey star and all around popular rich guy, whose life is forever altered after a car wreck that kills his best friend and the friend's date, and causes Chris to have a severe closed head injury.
When we meet Chris, he is working a mundane job as the night janitor of a small local bank, and the only friends he has are Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio) the local night shift cop who stops by the bank each evening to check on Chris and bring him donuts, and Lewis (Jeff Daniels), Chris' roommate, a blind man who Chris met at the head trauma rehab school he attends. Chris makes his way from one day to the next almost on autopilot, and his greatest wish is to be able to turn back the clock, undo everything and just have his old life back.
Then one night at a bar, Chris meets Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who introduces Chris to a beautiful stripper named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). Chris is so lonely for acceptance and friendship that when Gary introduces himself as a former classmate, he immediately believes Gary went to high school with him, even though he doesn't remember him. After all, since the accident memory is a huge hurdle for Chris; he has to write notes to remind himself to do things like brush his teeth and wear socks, so not recalling a classmate seems perfectly natural to Chris. When Luvlee starts coming onto him, Chris doesn't stop to wonder why this hot blond would, out of the blue, decide to come onto a guy like himself. It's been so long since life felt remotely normal, that he latches onto the feeling of having a girl like him, and a friend around his own age to talk to, without ever questioning their motivation. Because of his accident and subsequent social isolation, Chris has a naiveté that he never would have had in his previous existence -- and that's just what Gary is counting on.
Gary's interest in Chris, unfortunately, isn't as mundane as he'd have Chris believe. Gary's also counting on Chris' frustration over the loss of his normal life, and his reluctant dependence on his wealthy family, to help push Chris closer to the edge. Soon Chris finds himself way over his damaged head in a plan to pull a heist on the very bank he works for, and he has to find a way to get his damaged brain to outsmart a gang of ruthless criminals before they turn on him, or hurt the people he loves.
Not every screenwriter can transition smoothly to helming a film, but Frank's personal leap of faith into unknown territory pays off very nicely for him here. He first wrote the script for The Lookout a decade ago, and he's clearly spent a lot of time working through each of the elements, and how to put the pieces together on the screen. No matter how good a script or how well-drawn the protagonist, though, if the acting isn't solid the film won't be. Fortunately, Frank made some great casting choices that help the film rise above the pack, in particular his casting of Gordon-Levitt in the lead role.
Gordon-Levitt brings Chris to life so expertly that he fully becomes a believable head trauma victim, weaving into Chris' personality all the subtler aspects of head trauma recovery: the underlying anger and sense of having been victimized by the accident; the frustration of having your life and future snatched out from under you with no warning; the utter wretchedness of being unable to think and process as clearly and easily as you could before the accident. Chris' head injury becomes almost a character in and of itself, a dragon that Chris must slay if he's to survive the situation in which he finds himself.
Also notable are excellent performances by Goode and Daniels in the supporting roles. In playing Gary, Goode turns off the natural British charm we saw in Match Point to create a complex bad guy who may or may not genuinely like Chris, even as he plans to use and discard him. He has a charm here that make it easy to buy that Chris might allow himself to believe that Gary really wants to be his friend, but at the same time maintains a certain tension of body language and shiftiness of facial expression that send clear signals that there is much more to Gary than Chris is seeing.
Daniels, who is terribly underrated by Hollywood as a great character actor, makes Lewis the anchor of the story.Lewis is simultaneously strong and weak; he is Chris' mentor in his post-accident life, but at the same time he has grown dependent on having Chris around, and on the feeling of self-worth he gains from being the wise mentor dispensing advice. When Chris starts listening more to Gary and Luvlee than to Lewis, Lewis starts to feel his own sense of worth unravel, which in turn makes him more vulnerable than he's ever felt.
The Lookout is a tense, tautly drawn film with characters well-drawn and well-acted enough to make the audience care what happens to them. Structurally, this is one of the best scripts I've seen in a while -- the exposition is minimal, the dialogue well-crafted and the decision to revolve a plot not around the action of the bank robbery, but around the inner struggle of a protagonist who's lost his entire sense of self-identity, makes this film stand out as a uniquely creative effort that works well from start to finish. Frank has proven with this film that he has what it takes to direct his own scripts, and it will be interesting to see what he does with this talent next.