Did anyone see any advertising for the directorial debut of screenwriter Scott Frank last year? “Scott who?,” you say — and that’s where the problems begin…
The other sadness is that Mr. Frank, the award-winning writer of ‘Minority Report‘ (2002), ‘Out of Sight’ (1998) and ‘Dead Again’ (1991) got next to no promotional support for his debut feature. It was budgeted at $16M, took in $4M and slipped quietly beneath the waves 5 weeks later.
Problem is, Mr. Frank’s feature shared it’s opening weekend with last year’s Tarantino/Rodriguez double-feature ‘Grindhouse’ (2007) and it was released by the post-Weinstein Miramax and Spyglass Entertainment. So, given a choice between promoting a celebrated screenwriter in an open field against the brand-names Tarantino™ and Rodriguez™, Disney chose to punt. The unfortunate fact is that it’s a pretty good, if over-budgeted film, far more engaging than the two-fer that Wonder Twins Tarantino and Rodriguez produced.
“Over-budgeted”, you ask? Despite the fact that Mr. Frank has been revered as the go-to script-doctor out in Hollywood for more than a decade, his first feature could have/should have been able to do more with less. The cinematography just a bit too assured, the music just a bit too lush for a film that’s essentially a neo-noir set in a midwestern town someplace (really Winnipeg, Manitoba). However, I guess Disney/Miramax wanted to treat Frank well, considering all of the work he’s done for Spielberg, Jodie Foster, Kenneth Branagh, Steven Soderbergh and Sydney Pollack.
From all accounts, the screenplay was finished back in 2002, yet sat on a shelf for 4 years. By all rights, The Lookout should have been an independent film, but what are you gonna do if someone offers you $16M to make your first feature?.
The story is sound here. As other writers have observed, Frank’s main strengths are sharp dialogue and character-driven stories, which is particularly why the film is overproduced: The script is an admirably small-scaled character-driven thing, full of unknowns, save for Jeff Daniels — yet the quality of the production is entirely A-List, nothing that Spielberg or Soderbergh or Pollack wouldn’t be disappointed with.
Early scenes in the film are so beautifully presented that they are at odds with the would-be grittier feel of the story that follows. Frank’s script might have benefitted from a more verité treatment. Of course, those production choices could be Frank’s alone and not that of his DP or production designer; ultimately though, it all falls back upon Frank.
Numerous reviewers have commented that The Lookout seems to be a cross between ‘Memento’ (2000) and ‘Fargo’ (1996) due to its rural small-town location, and the hook of a protagonist with memory problems, but Frank’s most remarkable invention in this film is his use of the amnesiac story-device — writing things down — to create a meta-narrative that speaks to the very heart of screenwriting.
“Ritual, Pattern, Repetition”, mutters our protagonist, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) , during a session with his occupational therapist. As a result of the events in the film’s teaser episode, he has suffered a traumatic brain injury that denies him a short-term memory, requiring that he write everything down, just to get through his day as a janitor at a local bank. Eventually, this writing serves the story in a central way as Chris plots against his antagonists to rescue his best friend, Lew (Jeff Bridges), from arch-crooks Matthew Goode and Greg Dunham. As his therapist suggests, “Start at the end, and work your way back toward the beginning,” thus, Mr. Frank’s graduate school lessons are made available to us mere-mortals spec-monkeys.
All told, The Lookout is ultimately a noir film, down to it’s femme-fatale, it’s central caper and betrayal.
This one is highly recommended — stick it in your Netflix cue or catch it on cable — whichever comes first.