Elmore Leonard has a lot to answer for in regards to the current state of crime cinema. Thin, almost non-existent plots are given the power of verite when they are driven by Leonard’s oddball characters, with their pop culture obsessions and mental hang-ups. The stories seem like Hammett and Chandler rewritten by the crime beat reporter for the New York Daily News. Double crosses and secrets unfold effortlessly, as though noir had never been invented, as though femme fatales were nothing but tanned beach babes 10 years past their prime looking for a sugar daddy to pay for their fix, or worse, a young fool looking for sincerity and love. He may be the quintessential fall guy ready for the picking, but in Leonard’s stories, as in Scott Frank’s assured directorial debut, “The Lookout”, he may not realize that he’s supposed to lose.
It’s the loser, the sap, and the fall guy that drives most of noir fiction. He’s really us, the ordinary everyman who’s not unintelligent, just too trusting. In a way, most noirs are coming of age stories where an innocent learns how vicious and cruel the world can be. Only in a noir, he usually learns it while a hunk of hot lead burns in his gut. Dying, not only from the bullet, but also from the knife edge of betrayal, the noir hero can only tell us his story and hope to enlighten us to the ugly truth. The world is a cesspool and it’s only with a cold heart and steely eyes that a man may find peace.
But peace in whatever form it comes in is not part and parcel of the noir genre. It’s danger, the adrenaline pumping danger of pulling off a crime, the pulse pounding danger of being on the run, and the erotic danger of sexual obsession. It’s the excitement that draws the noir hero to the danger like a moth to the flame. He knows that the object of his desire is destructive, but cannot turn back. Ordinary life is meaningless and dull, a living death of suburban anesthesia with a wife, a job and kids. A ritualized repetition of work, lawn care and Sunday Football. But what if life dealt you a crueler card and left you with nothing but an anestheticized existence altogether, regardless of choice? What if your life was led in isolation and empty ritual?
“Ritual. Pattern. Repetition.” These are words we hear in the noir voiceover of “The Lookout”. They are spoken in a drone like manner by Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the brain-damaged-bank-janitor–fall-guy-in-the-making narrator of “The Lookout”. The words are a catchphrase designed to help him keep his grip on the memory he lost in a car accident that shattered his life. Chris was once a High School hockey star from a privileged family with a bright future. You know, the likable kid who stayed likable even though he had everything. Following his accident, Chris is left with a faulty brain that cannot keep track of chronology. Ordinary activities like reading newspapers leave him angry and frustrated. He makes it through the day, day by day, by writing everything down in his notebook, a journal of life that does not mark the high points, but all points relevant to common existence. Like where the can opener is located.
Chris has alienated his family and now lives in the city with his roommate and only friend, the blind Lewis, played by Jeff Daniels. He would like to train as a teller at the bank, but his boss refuses due to his handicap. That Chris is a ready-made sap is without doubt. He’s angry at the way his life has turned out, and lonely and frustrated with his very existence. This is where Gary (Matthew Goode) and his buddies come in. You see, Gary was a few years ahead of Chris in High School, but still remembers all about Chris’ glory days before the accident, easily winning Chris’ trust through his warmth and admiration. Chris is introduced and included into Gary’s circle of “friends”, the grim looking Bone (Greg Dunham) and more enticingly, Gary’s ex-stripper girlfriend Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher).
They are, of course, planning a robbery that just happens to be at Chris’ bank. They really need his help, since he knows the whole layout. He would make a great lookout. Chris seems powerless to avoid getting involved. It’s been years since he’s been respected, since he’s been needed for anything. And it’s been years since he’s been involved with a beautiful girl. Even if her name is Luvlee Lemons and she’s not exactly innocent. When Lewis tells her about how he lost his sight, she says in a very flat tone, “That’s a sad story. I’m sorry…if it’s true.” A nice world she must come from.
Frank wrote the screenplay for “The Lookout” almost 4 years ago, and it has long been rumored, like Lem Dobb’s still unproduced “Edward Ford”, to be one of the greatest unfilmed scripts on the studio shelves. David Fincher toyed with it a bit before chasing the “Zodiac” instead and left it for Frank to direct himself. Frank acquits himself very effectively in the director’s chair, but this isn’t so much a director’s picture as it is a true “auteur” film, as in “author”.
The film’s effectiveness is entirely within the pages of the script, and the talent of its fine cast. Like John Huston, who debuted with his own crime adaptation, “The Maltese Falcon”, Frank clearly sees writing and casting as the most important parts of making a successful film. Huston once remarked that 75% of a picture’s success could be attributed to good casting. If the material is any good, the director merely has to photograph it cleanly. Frank’s style is very clean and effective. In many ways, “The Lookout” most resembles the neo-noirs of John Dahl from the ’90s, like “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction”. Small films with simple production values, and small casts that created webs of cross and double cross that riveted attention because of just who it was that were being crossed.
Frank has also clearly learned much from his Oscar nominated and much acclaimed adaptations of old Elmore himself. “Get Shorty”, but particularly “Out of Sight”, capture the veteran writer’s flair for stories that emerge from the characters and their inevitable choices, rather than heavy handed plotting that moves them around like chess pieces. He’s also effective in using the tricks employed by that charlatan M. Night Shyamalan in creating stories that appear to be small-scale character dramas until the aliens, glassmen or ghosts suddenly appear. Frank is in no hurry to get to his heist plot, and much of the picture feels like a drama about the day-to-day existence of Chris Pratt. This is good since the heist itself is nothing to remark about, and the sudden shifts in character somewhat hard to swallow. It’s all just nitpicking, however, as this is really a fine picture.
“The Lookout’s” quality would be zero if the cast were made up of say, Freddie Prince Jr., Stephen Dorff, and Ashlee Simpson. Not to knock any of those people as actors, but hopefully they are aware of their limitations. The cast Frank puts together is absolutely perfect, and at its center, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really something. How he underplays a role that seems to be screaming for some kind of explosive bad acting is a hint to his intelligence. He’s not a household name by any means, not even after 5 years on “Third Rock from the Sun”, but with any luck, that’ll change soon.
The rest of the cast matches him step for step. Jeff Daniels is always so good that it’s sometimes hard to remember to mention him. In “The Squid and The Whale”, he played up on his elitist, cold side and created a character that was both despicable and sad. This is a complete switch in that Lewis is someone who seems to be charismatic and fun, and yet is wearing a mask of confidence and joviality as a defense against the world. Matthew Goode, last seen in Woody Allen’s “Match Point”, is so annoyingly charming, and yet filled with self loathing that he is completely riveting while being completely repulsive.
And Isla Fisher, besides her notoriety as the future Mrs. Borat, gives a performance that is driven by her carefully chosen line readings, which seem to hint at mysterious depths and hidden motivations at all times. Luvlee Lemons is the thinnest character in the script and yet, Fisher has the charm and charisma to make her seem more complex. She is also very attractive, and this is no small requirement in a story where the hero must fall for the potential femme fatale.
It’s in the very use of the femme fatale archetype that Elmore Leonard has marked the contemporary film noir. Classical cinema died a bloody death around 1968, in a hail of bullets from Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, and was run over for good measure by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s motorcycles. Genre films since then have all been played with quotation marks at the fade in and out points. What Leonard has demonstrated, and Quentin Tarantino brought to Hollywood, was a certain way of toying with the old conventions by arriving at them organically, through a story about some very original characters. Since they are original, their choices will be surprising, even if they are based on genre plots.
The Chinese have had a long tradition of doing this in their art, and they call it “polishing the jade”. Instead of making something new, you polish the old and resell it. Post-classical cinema wants to get us excited about the old stories again, but in a new way. “The Lookout” is very polished jade.
Scott Frank (director) / Scott Frank (screenplay)
CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt … Chris Pratt
Jeff Daniels … Lewis
Matthew Goode … Gary Spargo
Isla Fisher … Luvlee
Carla Gugino … Janet
Bruce McGill … Robert Pratt
Alberta Watson … Barbara Pratt
Alex Borstein … Mrs. Lange