Four years ago, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was a student with a girlfriend (Laura Vandervoort) and a future, but thanks to one night when he took her and two of his friends out to see the fireflies that swarm, lighting up the sky, everything changed for him. The trouble was that to see the insects he had to speed along and turn off his headlights, and while it was quite a sight to see them amassed around, pinpricks of light in the blackness, it would have been a better sight to see the farming equipment in the middle of the road up ahead. There was, predictably, an accident, where the two friends were killed, his girlfriend lost a leg, and Chris was seriously brain damaged...
Picking up the story now in freezing Minnesota, Chris has made progress, but remains effectively disabled and in need of therapy and assistance to get through the day, though he is managing to live on his own as long as he makes sure to make a list of his activities through the day to guide him and is certain he doesn't make any mistakes. If you are thinking, oh yeah, another disability drama, we've seen it all before, it was worth bearing in mind that the then-new kid on the block (as far as leading a movie went, at any rate) Gordon-Levitt had gone method in his portrayal - no, he hadn't been brain damaged, but he had done extensive research into his character's debilitating condition.
As had his co-star Jeff Daniels, playing his blind buddy Lewis, who helps him through his days and fires off-colour quips at anyone within earshot in a manner that you assume director Scott Frank found a lot more endearing than they turned out to be. Frank was making his name as a top screenwriter, and would go on to major movies afterwards, but his directing career never took off in the same way, possibly because his choices in that respect were rather grey, depressed dramas with a thriller element to wake the audience up every so often. To be fair, The Lookout did collect a strong cult following, but for many of the uninitiated, it was difficult to discern precisely why that was.
Take away the concentration on rendering the brain damage aspect as realistically as possible and you were left with a very ordinary affair, and even with it, it was difficult to get excited about a film that came across as a refugee from ten years before when heist movies were being released practically weekly. The nineteen-nineties were the true heyday of these things (unless the burst of fifties ones floated your boat), and though the heist form has never completely gone away, the overflow of the genre from that just pre-millennium time made them more identifiable with that decade than any other. Therefore The Lookout could not prevent itself appearing as a Johnny-come-lately, especially when those latterly developing suspense points arrived awfully late in the day, too far on to appreciate.
This did have an abundance of careful setting up and precision plotting, but the results were uninspiring since they led up to a variation on Fargo without the humour or excitement, never mind the insight into how humans tick in extreme situations. The leading man was obviously on his way to bigger things, though it was odd to see him play a character with the same name as a contemporary star who was also about to make waves in the film industry at a similar stage, but it was a strain to keep interested in what held no real surprises, a fatal flaw in your average heist movie. You could argue the gang's downfall, robbing the bank Chris works at that he realises he is out of his depth in assisting, was playing out with that grim compulsion to keep watching to see how bad things would get, but they were far from a great tragedy, and the lack of engagement was telling. Frank did work up a strong atmosphere of doom, that was in his favour, but that storyline needed a lot more attention. Music by James Newton Howard.