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Case Studies in Memory Impairment
by Ruth Campbell and Martin Conway
In Paperback from Amazon)
Can a film give you a high? If it were a perfectly constructed, directed and acted one, which gripped you from start to finish, would you be considered some kind of kook to be susceptible to drama-intoxication? If there were a way to measure it, this psychological thriller that is a model of the form drove this movie-junkie's involvement needs off the scale.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a high school hockey hero, is just as prone to showing off for his girlfriend and pals, as anyone his age. On a starry night when he's driving his convertible out on a highway the fields are aglow with fireflies. To further impress everyone, he turns off the headlights to increase the awesome effect of the phenomenon as well as that of the night sky. He's so thrilled by what he's doing that he's deaf to the entreaties of his back-seaters when they start yelling for the headlights to go back on and the speed to be trimmed back. Their fears prove portentious. When Chris finally relents and turns the lights on again, the first thing he sees on the highway is a stuck and abandoned tractor-trailer directly in front of him.
The car goes spinning in space and the back-seaters die. As for what happens to Chris' girlfriend, we find out later. Chris suffers a brain injury that will limit his memory and independence for the rest of his life.
Years later he's under the care of a shrink named Janet (Carla Gugino in a cameo appearance) and in a rehab program which has placed him together with blind Lewis Canfield (Jeff Daniels), the victim of an industrial accident and now his acerbic roommate and guidance counselor. Canfield, an understanding and somewhat clairvoyant man seemingly born to the task, constantly helps Chris with his memory drills and devices in the form of notes. Chris' notebook is full of daily schedule reminders.
Chris manages to hold down a job at a local bank as the night janitor. Training under one of the tellers, he announces to his boss his hope of becoming one, an idea immediately rejected by the officious owner.
Among Chris' limited social contacts outside his wealthy family is the town sheriff who comes by nightly on a kind mission to bring the disabled athlete a box of doughnuts and to see that everything is all right. It always is... until it isn't.
That development begins when Chris meets Gary (ultra-smooth Matthew Goode) one night at the local bar whose slick way in gaining Chris' trust would set up warning signals to anyone except someone with Chris' vulnerability. Gary is going to teach him a thing or two about picking up a woman and, before you know it, Chris is in a double date foursome for adults with sexy Luvlee (Isla Fisher) as an entirely eager companion. Taking it all at face value, Chris isn't cynical or guarded enough to question the motives behind his new friends' kindnesses toward him. And, when motives are revealed, his reaction isn't exactly the expected one.
The film could not have a better central figure than Gordon-Levitt who translates boyish charm into sympathy and concern in a convincing mix of an intelligent mind struggling with damage to it. Once I got past his uncanny resemblance to young Tim Hutton, I was on his capable wavelength. In terms of screen presence, 43 major, minor and TV roles for the 26-year old says enough.
And, at last, Daniels has found a role perfect for his gifts as an actor tending toward the moralizing do-gooder. He puts this affinity to fine, good use in this context.
But, in the accolade department, my strongest salute goes to writer-director Scott Frank whose first directorial effort this is. One can see that the astuteness of his script comes from incredible work as a screenwriter considering his credits for "Get Shorty" (1995), "Out of Sight" (1998), "Minority Report" (2002) and the brilliant adventure with words in translation, "The Interpreter" (2005). He's certainly my kind of writer in his treatments of credible human behavior, strong motivational force, and psychological dimension. His ability to ratchet up the tension in an exquisitely controlled dramatic arc, in a taut and tight 99 minutes, is a lesson in screenwriting and one which provides him this accomplished directorial home run.
(The brief appearance of Carla Gugino here, in a scene which seems only for the purpose of featuring her, may be a nod to her talent and beauty on "Karen Sisco," some episodes of which Frank wrote).
In February, it isn't much to say that "The Lookout" is the best of the year for its creative originality, but I expect it will remain among my favorites for at least the next 10 months. It is among the best realized screenplays I can remember (my own memory limitation notwithstanding) and, as readers of Cinema Signals may know, I haven't raved so much over a film's ability to stop my pulse, as this one did, since "Maria Full of Grace."
~~ Jules Brenner