Judging by the late-'90s sitcom "Third Rock from the Sun," I never would have suspected that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have blossomed into a great actor. He was passable in the show, portraying an alien life form inhabiting the body of a hormonal teenage boy, but he gave little indication that he had it in him to deliver the kind of intense, layered performance he gives us in "The Lookout." If Gordon-Levitt continues down the road he's on (he also garnered favorable notices for last year's neo-noir "Brick"), he could very well establish himself as one of Hollywood's major young talents.
Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a formerly gifted high school athlete who loses everything because of a single stupid mistake he makes driving home from a party one night. Because of his own carelessness, Chris finds himself responsible for the deaths of two close friends. He is left not only with unbearable survivor's guilt, but also permanent brain damage that makes it difficult for him to sequence events and, by extension, hold down a decent job or even relate to people socially. His only real friend is his roommate, a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels) who helps Chris try to overcome his many challenges.
Chris wakes up. He takes a shower, with soap. Sometimes he cries uncontrollably, but he's not sure why. He eats breakfast, but he doesn't read the paper. He goes to class. He goes to work as a night janitor at the bank. This schedule is laid out by our narrator in the film's opening scenes, and it's immediately clear that Chris isn't so much a human being anymore as he is a broken shell of a man whose daily rituals have become his own personal prison.
He longs for more, to be able to recapture some of the power and glory he enjoyed as a teenager before it was all ripped out from under him. He thinks he finds that opportunity when he meets Gary (Matthew Goode), who takes Chris under his wing and provides him with respect, friendship and even a little sorely missed female companionship. But these things come with a price: Gary wants Chris to help him rob a bank.
"The Lookout" could have easily been a run-of-the-mill heist thriller in which the climactic caper is the payoff and there's a nifty little twist in the end to wrap things up in a nice, pretty package. But under the control of Scott Frank (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of such films as "Dead Again," "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," marking his directorial debut), the film is more concerned with character development and interactions than it is with the plot mechanics of a standard thriller.
The movie is not without its faults (most notably, several important plot threads are left dangling in the end), but by presenting the viewer with fully developed characters with whom it is easy to identify and sympathize, "The Lookout" towers above other recent efforts in this genre. Hopefully, subsequent works by both Frank and Gordon-Levitt will live up to the infinite promise shown here.
"The Lookout" is rated R for violence, profanity and brief nudity.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.