Thriller with a memory problem

Film breaks old ground using whaddayacallit as plot device

Posted: March 30, 2007

Here's a dissenting vote on "The Lookout," the thriller from Scott Frank that has seeded a forest of upright thumbs.

Frank is the talented screenwriter ("Out of Sight," "Get Shorty") stepping behind the camera to film his own script - the story of Chris Pratt, a hot-shot high school athlete/rich kid (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose promising future disappears in an instant when a terrible car accident leaves him with brain damage.

The symptoms are varied, but he's often unable to control his emotions, suppress obscene speech, make sense of his guilt, or hold a complex job.

Oh, and he's lost his short-term memory.

Short-term memory loss? Shades of "Memento," the Rosetta stone of gimmick thrillers.

You hope Frank isn't making yet another "gotcha" puzzle box, and in fairness that doesn't appear to be what he's up to. "The Lookout" has a strangely purposeful way of tipping its narrative "surprises."

Pratt, for instance, takes a menial job swabbing floors as the lone overnight employee at a rural bank. This is a situation that an unscrupulous person could exploit, and when just such a shady character (Matthew Goode) befriends Pratt, "The Lookout" immediately tips us that he's up to no good.

Frank also lets us know, right away, that Pratt's gorgeous new girlfriend (Isla Fisher) is too good to be true.

This studied series of anticlimaxes (a variation of the technique handled better in "Zodiac") may be Frank's way of saying the movie isn't really about twists and turns, but people.

But so was the livelier "Memento," since its final twist revealed the ghastly truth about its lead character, played with sardonic intelligence by Guy Pearce.

Frank is working with Gordon-Levitt, who brought a similar sensibility to "Brick," but here is shackled with the implicit limits of the disabled character he's playing.

Brain injury has gutted the arrogant personality that grew from his athletic prowess and station in life.

Pratt can't even remember those he used to hold in contempt - he has to return home for Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, to remember that he can't stand his overbearing father (Bruce McGill) or simpering yuppie brother.

There is grist here for an interesting character study (it gradually dawns on a guy with a bum memory that he can't stand his family), but writer-director Frank is bound to return to the caper-flick he's told us is coming, and to the device of the indispensable notebook that Pratt uses to write instructions to himself.

Does the notebook figure into the grand finale? Of course it does.

Just like the shotgun that Pratt's father pointedly flourishes in act two. We know what's coming, Frank knows we know. His challenge is to make us care regardless.

I confess thatI didn't: When the bullets fly and the bodies fall, and mortally wounded characters crawl vainly across the desolate, snowy highway, I was pretty sure none of it would remain in my long-term memory.

One exception - the watchable Jeff Daniels as the blind roommate who protects Pratt, and who, ironically, can see what's coming. *

Produced by Walter Parkes, Laurence Mark, Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber, written and directed by Scott Frank, music by James Newton Howard, distributed by Miramax Films.

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