Watch and wait

The Lookout

Everybody puts JGL in a corner.

Everybody puts JGL in a corner.

Rated 4.0

Guess it’s really time to stop saying how weird it is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt used to be the kid on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Can’t help it; that show was still brand new when writer-director Scott Frank began scripting Gordon-Levitt’s latest this-kid-is-good vehicle, The Lookout.

Everyone agrees the 26-year-old actor has been one to watch for a few years now. He’s nailed some nervy, heavy turns—with a relatively light touch—in Mysterious Skin, Brick and now this. There’s that guarded intelligence and mercurial sensuality in his eyes, that relaxed correctness in all his choices: He’s like the actor you’d get if you could scour all the vanity from Robert Downey Jr., or reverse Keanu Reeves’ lobotomy.

In The Lookout’s disarmingly straight-ahead noir scenario, Gordon-Levitt plays a young man bruised by his past and robbed of his future, short on prospects and poised, though he doesn’t recognize it at first, to become a patsy. Chris Pratt used to be a rich and reckless Midwestern youngster, his hometown’s local hockey hero, who took his gal and his pals cruising in the convertible on glorious summer evenings, headlights off, when the fireflies were mating and anything seemed possible—except maybe a wheat thresher parked in the middle of the road. (Don’t worry; the movie gives that away, too.)

Now Chris spends his days relearning basic activities at the Kansas City Life Skills Center and manning a nighttime janitorial job at the town-square bank. He carries a card in his wallet to help explain his brain injury to strangers, a notebook in his pocket to remind himself how to get through even the simplest daily tasks, and a burden of heavy immovable guilt on his shoulders. His life’s been ruined, but at least it goes on; not everybody made it through that thresher alive.

Bitterly aware that he still depends on his disappointed, money-insulated family, Chris prefers to live with a wizened moral supporter named Lewis, who’s blind but has seen a thing or two. Luckily for everyone, Lewis is played by Jeff Daniels, another actor whose progress lately has been viscerally enjoyable. What a treat it’s been to witness the maturation of Daniels’ guilelessness; here he finds subtle ways to let you know how easily he might have turned in an archly referential elder-mentor performance, all the while graciously opting not to.

“Don’t think of it as a list, think of it as a story,” Lewis instructs, sounding suspiciously like a screenwriting guru, as Chris wrestles with his broken memory. “You sequence just fine. You just gotta start at the end and work backward.”

This will prove useful advice. One day a dimly remembered acquaintance named Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) sides up to Chris at a bar. He’s a little older, and he’s coming from a different place, but he knows who Chris once was and makes a point of implying discreet veneration. His friendliness seems faintly appraising, but his surety is appealing. Much of this movie’s allure, actually, belongs to the unrecognizably British Goode, who brilliantly underplays a few of his less-than-brilliantly underwritten speeches. Here’s an actor who deserves a shot at Shakespeare’s Edmund or Iago.

And there’s a girl, too, who rightly calls herself Luvlee (Isla Fisher) and regales Chris with tales of his own glory days in the hockey rink. Chris senses himself becoming a part of other people’s plans, and tries to get his mind around what sort of opportunity that is.

Writer Frank, here making his directorial debut, is someone who obeys the Chekhovian dramatic rule about not showing a gun in Act I unless you’re prepared to use it in Act III. Having done well by adapting Elmore Leonard books—Out of Sight, Get Shorty—for other directors, he tried for years to hand off The Lookout, also in its way a caper movie, but benefits from directing it himself. Taking the time to get it right is, in fact, one of this story’s production values.

A problem is that Frank nobly wants to drive his film by its characters, but oversimplifies their motives and moralities. For all the fine performances, still, it has something of the after-school special in it.

Maybe in 10 more years we’ll be saying how weird it is that Gordon-Levitt used to play all those parts requiring him to crouch in corners taking other people’s abuse. We should cross our fingers and put in a request for romantic comedy now.