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A Terrible Thing to Waste

The Lookout is a nifty neurological thriller that only goes brain-dead at the end. Plus: Adam Sandler’s 9/11 movie.

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Illustration by Paul Willoughby  

Chris Pratt, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the perfect patsy-hero for the crafty little minor-key thriller The Lookout: a young man who has sinned in his own eyes and is also brain-damaged—compromised both morally and neurologically. When we first see him, he’s “Slapshot” Pratt, a high-school rich-kid hockey star who’s so certain of his indestructibility that he sails along a Midwest country road sans headlights, the better to show off all the fireflies (they’re mating) to his girlfriend, his buddy, and his buddy’s girlfriend—two of whom don’t survive the subsequent collision. Now, he spends his days at an “independent life skills” center and his nights as a janitor at a small bank, where he’ll never have the cognitive function to rise to the level of teller. “Sometimes I cry for no reason,” he writes in the journal he keeps in the battle to make sense of his life.

The Lookout is the directing debut of the screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report), who reportedly wrote the script years ago—well before Memento, in which a brain injury plays havoc with both the protagonist’s short-term memory and the movie’s syntax. For those with a taste for neo-noir, it might be disappointing that Chris’s handicap doesn’t generate seismic spatial-temporal dislocations. Frank’s ambitions are comparatively modest: to deliver a nice, tight genre piece with people you like watching so much that you barely feel the director’s squeeeeze until you suddenly can’t breathe. The forlorn Chris finds himself befriended at a bar by Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) and a babe who calls herself Luvlee (the luscious Isla Fisher). Gary was a big fan of his high-school hockey playing! Luvlee was such a big fan she can’t believe she’s kissing Slapshot Pratt! The poor prat—I mean, Pratt—is the easiest bank-employee mark imaginable.

Gordon-Levitt is a major tabula rasa actor. It’s simpler to say what he doesn’t do wrong—anything—than what he does right. As in Mysterious Skin and Brick, he’s a minimalist: no fuss, no placards, no Method sense-memory exercises. You don’t catch him “playing” brain-damaged. You know his Chris is in chaos by the way he doesn’t seize the space, by what he takes away from the character. His feelings run deepest when that rubber face goes slack. Gordon-Levitt is a great re-actor, and he bounces off some barnstormers here. As his intemperate blind roommate, Lewis, nice-guy-actor Jeff Daniels gets to wallow in the head of another self-righteous jerk (the last one was in The Squid and the Whale), and Daniels’s relish for playing a man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a tractor and nothing left to lose makes you love the character beyond reason.

In Match Point, Matthew Goode played Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s mysteriously welcoming upper-class tennis partner—“mysteriously” because Goode couldn’t help but give the character an impish subtext, as if some skeezy punch line were coming (except that Woody Allen forgot to write it). In The Lookout, he’s playing an American, but the wiles are entertainingly English: It’s that mocking sincerity—that ironic fatuous niceness. Goode’s Gary is just the friendliest guy! He’s seductive even when you know where the movie is heading—and when the editor, Jill Savitt, steals a beat from his close-ups to give you subliminal willies. It’s almost a relief when the double entendres stop and Gary shows his true, feral colors.

Frank’s writing is razor-sharp, his filmmaking whistle-clean. As a fan of sharp razors and clean whistles, I enjoyed The Lookout—yet I did feel let down by the climax, which ought to have been blunter and messier and crazier and more cathartic. It sounds churlish, I know, but a thriller with a hero like Gordon-Levitt’s Chris should be more of an act of sympathetic imagination. The payoff needed to be more brain-damaged.

Reign Over Me is the rare studio film with the fullness of a novel—a novel that reels and overreaches and never finds its footing. The writer and director, Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), brings his screwball-sitcom temperament to a fictional premise that would stagger our most ruminative tragedian. Five years after the death of his wife and three daughters in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) remains in a state of extreme denial—he seems more brain-damaged than the hero of The Lookout. Whizzing around Manhattan on a scooter, he’s hailed by Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), his college roommate and dental-school chum. While Alan recalls their relationship, Charlie nods politely (“Cool, cool”) and then prepares to go on his way. He doesn’t want to remember anything.

In some ways, Charlie isn’t a stretch for Sandler. His comic shtick has always depended on him living in his own head and being self-servingly slow-witted. The persona is a hostile one—passive-aggressive with the odd ferocious ejaculation. But Sandler was surprisingly soulful as an overgrown adolescent lashing out at the world for its unreliability in Paul Thomas Anderson’s tipsy romantic fantasia Punch-Drunk Love. And as Charlie Fineman, he’s like a dammed-up Bob Dylan—he even sports a shaggy Dylan-circa-1969 hair mop and a mumble that seems to issue straight from his sinuses. He’s always ready to boogie—especially when someone wants him to acknowledge the death of his family. The worst are his wife’s parents (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon), who’ve clung to the tragedy and, rather selfishly, feel they need his presence to help them cope. Cheadle’s Alan isn’t that extreme, but he does enlist the aid of a psychiatrist played by an oddly cast—but not bad!—Liv Tyler.


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