- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

Scott Frank has had a distinguished career writing intelligent, noir-ish films.

He made his name in 1991 when “Dead Again,” just his second screenplay, was turned into a clever movie by Kenneth Branagh. He adapted two Elmore Leonard novels into the acclaimed films “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.” The second, a Steven Soderbergh film, got the writer an Oscar nomination in 1999 for best adapted screenplay. He then turned a Philip K. Dick story into “Minority Report” for Steven Spielberg.

“The Lookout,” the writer’s directorial debut, follows in the same thematic tradition. The script isn’t as tight as those he previously wrote, however. As talented as Mr. Frank is, “The Lookout” raises the question of how much of his previous success had to do with such accomplished collaborators as Mr. Branagh, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Spielberg.

“The Lookout” starts strong, as we hear Chris Pratt (“Third Rock From the Sun’s” Joseph Gordon-Levitt) go over the details of his day. Voice-over narration is difficult to pull off, but it works here. It helps that Chris is likable from the get-go. We discover that Chris is collecting these details on paper for an assignment at the Independent Life Skills Center of Kansas City. His short-term memory is nearly shot, and he writes notes to himself, “Memento”-style, to get through the day.

Chris is a long way from home, metaphorically. He was the golden boy of his high school, a talented hockey star from a privileged family with a gorgeous girlfriend. He threw it all away in an instant when he recklessly crashed his convertible, killing two friends and maiming his girlfriend. Chris got off pretty easy compared with them, and he’s never forgiven himself.

He shuns his friends and family and holes up in an apartment with another Life Skills inmate, the blind Lewis (a darkly humorous Jeff Daniels). Chris works as a janitor at a bank. Embarrassingly, he can’t even get himself a tryout for teller. He craves nothing less than his old life back.

Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, “Match Point”) understands this and uses it against Chris. He’s been casing the bank at which Chris works and develops a plan to rob it, but he needs Chris as his lookout. Using a former stripper named Luvlee Lemons (“The Wedding Crashers’ ” Isla Fisher) as bait, he dangles in front of Chris a simple way to regain his lost status: “Whoever has the money has the power.”

The star of another modern noir, last year’s “Brick,” Mr. Gordon-Levitt has a knack for playing the outsider on a mission and a discriminating eye for good parts.

“The Lookout” doesn’t hold together as well as “Brick,” though. A noir needs good lines, and they’re in short supply here. While suspension of disbelief is always necessary for this kind of film, it took more than usual to understand why Chris has trouble holding a coffee spoon but can easily glide into a parallel parking spot.

“Everything’s a story, Chris. Stories are what allow us to make sense of the world,” Lewis tells Chris. It’s certainly true of Chris, a damaged soul who must construct a narrative simply to get through the tasks of the day. Unfortunately, Mr. Frank hasn’t peppered his with enough of the witty lines and clever themes that made his previous movies so entertaining and intelligent.

***

TITLE: “The Lookout”

RATING: R (language, some violence and sexual content)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Scott Frank

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thelookout-movie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STAR.

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