By Matt Singer
[Photo: Paul Giamatti in “The Hawk is Dying,” Strand Releasing, 2007]
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can’t get a grip, literally or figuratively. The car accident that robbed him of a promising future and Sundays at the hockey rink also damaged his brain, leaving him mentally and physically impaired. Glasses and bottles slip through the unresponsive fingers of his left hand the way thoughts fall through the cracks of his crippled noggin. He’s constantly writing himself reminders in his little pocket spiral notebook so he stays on his routine and doesn’t forget to brush his teeth. Chris is better off than Leonard from “Memento,” but they could both benefit from the same therapy classes.
Like Leonard’s, Chris’ handicap is a bridge to a dark criminal underworld that he would never have known existed before his accident. In movies, people with memory loss are very susceptible to criminal activity. You never see someone in a movie bump their head and goes to work for the Peace Corps but, then you never really see anyone go to work for the Peace Corps in movies. It’s not nearly as cinematic a subject matter as bank robbery, and so that is where Chris’ destiny lies.
His only friend his blind roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels), Chris is desperate for some human (not to mention sexual) contact, and that’s exactly how a shady but charismatic character like Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) is able to sink claws into him. Sidling up next to Chris at a Kansas City bar, he plies him with companionship, free drinks and his kewpie doll bombshell buddy Luvlee (Isla Fisher). Chris is so happy to be amongst people again he barely notices when Gary begins to make intimations about robbing banks; just by coincidence, Chris works as a late night janitor in a local bank. Cue the planning, robbing, deceiving, shooting and dying.
This sooty concoction comes from Scott Frank, a talented screenwriter (“Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty”) making his directorial debut, and he exhibits some classic screenwriter-turned-director attributes. It’s a meticulously written film, from Chris’ ironic voiceover (which is supposed to sync with the notes he leaves himself in his notebook, but often doesn’t) to the integration of good storytelling lessons into a narrative (Lewis advice to Chris, and perhaps Frank’s advice to aspiring screenwriters: “You can’t tell a story if you don’t know where it’s going.”). Another director might have excised some of the clunkier elements, but they do add a refreshing directness to the film; sometimes a big, thudding cross-hanging-over-Chris’-shoulder metaphor (which Frank employs not once but twice during “The Lookout”) can do us all some good.
Though it doesn’t really look like a traditional entry in the genre, “The Lookout” falls into the world of film noir on the strength of its tragic hero. Chris is more loser than innocent; the car crash was his fault and the mistakes he makes in its aftermath are all his. He’s a pathetic guy, but not exactly a likable one and, as Levitt plays him, he has a dark side that manifests itself via outbursts that bubble up when he can’t figure out how to make himself dinner or snag a loan from his parents.
Levitt’s become one of the most talented and reliable young actors on the indie film scene. With “The Lookout” and other recent standouts like “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin,” a pattern’s emerged: he’s drawn to socially awkward loners, particularly ones with dark secrets in their past that they can’t atone for or deal with. What about that appeals to Levitt is unclear; does he feel like he must atone for “3rd Rock”? Dude, it wasn’t that bad.
Never terribly outstanding (except when Daniels is on screen), “The Lookout” is nonetheless a solid genre picture, carefully plotted and acted, with a nice balance of style and substance. Unlike most modern day stabs at noir, it’s more reserved than flashy; like Chris himself, the movie is withdrawn and subdued, sometimes charming and a little bit sad.
“The Hawk is Dying”
The movie I most anticipated and disliked from Sundance 2006, “The Hawk is Dying” based on the novel by Harry Crews comes with a fine creative pedigree and a murderers’ row of a cast, including Michelle Williams, Michael Pitt and Paul Giamatti as George, a man obsessed with capturing and training birds. After the death of his nephew, George dedicates himself to training a wild hawk. Until his task is complete, he will not eat or sleep or, lamentably, make a good movie.
Despite the talented cast and creators, the project never gels and, like a lot of festival films, it’s drenched in human anguish, heavy on the symbolism, and light on entertainment or enlightenment. And mostly it’s just Giamatti with a big leather glove on his hand and a hawk on his arm grunting and sweating as the hawk flaps and squawks around. For two hours.