This review was written for the festival screening of "The Lookout."
AUSTIN -- After getting the '90s Elmore Leonard boom rolling by penning two of the best adaptations to date ("Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight"), screenwriter Scott Frank returns to crime for his first film as director, a feature as novel-istic as Leonard's novels are movielike. The shift in tone (and lack of a John Travolta or George Clooney) likely will limit "Lookout's" mass appeal, but it should work for the slice of the indie audience that has followed star Joseph Gordon-Levitt's recent art house outings.
Gordon-Levitt is Chris Pratt, a high school jock whose bright future is nixed when a careless car crash kills a buddy and leaves him with a brain injury. Challenged now by such mundane responsibilities as showering and cooking dinner, he shares an apartment with mentor Lewis (Jeff Daniels, supplying enjoyable comic relief without upstaging the star), a blind man who provides advice both practical and emotional.
To buttress his flawed memory, Pratt leaves written instructions on objects ("lock door when leaving") and keeps a notebook at the ready for life lessons he'd otherwise forget. The echo of "Memento" doesn't extend to any of that film's formal trickery, but it does make a climactic plot device fairly easy to predict. And as in the earlier film, Pratt's disability makes him an easy mark for manipulators who pose as friends. Because Chris works as the night custodian of a small bank, it's only a matter of time until the wrong person decides to befriend him.
The seduction, in which a heist crew gets help from a beautiful woman (Isla Fisher, "Wedding Crashers") who pretends to fall for him, lends the story a note of sick inevitability. But the film takes its mood cues from Gordon-Levitt's performance -- low-key and mildly addled. Those looking for the criminal snap-crackle of "Out of Sight" will be disappointed. In pulp terms, "Lookout" is more Jim Thompson than Elmore Leonard.
Things pick up as Chris, first appalled at the idea of helping rob his employers, decides to go along with the plan. The suspense rarely gets nail-biting, but effective pacing ensures that viewers don't lose interest, and Chris' sudden rejection of those with his best interests at heart lends some emotional gravity.
Frank isn't terribly subtle about some of the things he wants viewers to notice -- a neon cross here, an asthma inhaler there -- and a bit of his staging in the actual heist sequence is unnecessarily improbable. But these minor irritants don't get in the way of a solidly directed movie that does what it wants to do well, whether that's exactly what a caper-craving audience expects or not.
Screenwriter-director: Scott Frank
Producers: Walter Parkes, Laurence Mark, Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber
Executive producer: Laurie Macdonald, Becki Cross Trujillo, Jonathan Glickman
Director of photography: Alar Kivilo
Production designer: David Brisbin
Costume designer: Abram Waterhouse
Music: James Newton Howard
Editor: Jill Savitt
Chris Pratt: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Lewis: Jeff Daniels
Gary Spargo: Matthew Goode
Janet: Carla Gugino
Robert Pratt: Bruce McGill
Luvlee: Isla Fisher
Barbara Pratt: Alberta Watson
Mrs. Lange: Alex Borstein
Running time -- 99 minutes
MPAA rating: R