For a movie about the effects of profound brain damage on a young man with a whole life still to be lived, The Lookout is funny, tender and littered with elegantly written characters played by actors cast for goodness of fit rather than star wattage. Which is about what you’d expect from screenwriter Scott Frank, who made his name with two graceful adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. The Lookout is also Frank’s first foray into the director’s chair, and as it turns out he wields a fluid camera surely influenced by his experience working with Steven Soderbergh. Not to mention a canny feel for snowbound Kansas, where we first meet Chris Pratt (Mysterious Skin’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a well-heeled small-town hockey star whose glittering future is blighted by a car crash that leaves his beautiful girlfriend horribly disfigured and grounds him with the kinds of disabilities that lend themselves with equal efficacy to a disease-of-the-week movie and an irreverent crime caper.

Mercifully, The Lookout leans toward the latter, though it is wonderfully attentive to the inner struggles of its sad young hero. Frank said in a recent interview that he defines his characters by what they want out of life, but when next we meet Chris he’s in no condition to want anything but a return to his former glamour-boy self. Hobbled by poor impulse control and short-term-memory loss so acute that he has to write everything down in a small notebook, he flails between despair and unrealistic ambition, at once over-protected and neglected by heedless parents who treat him as an incompetent. Which makes him a sitting target for a shaven-headed reptile like Gary, a high school acquaintance played by British actor Matthew Goode in an entertaining departure from his turn as Scarlett Johansson’s dull-and-boring squeeze in Match Point. Unusually interested in Chris’ job sweeping floors in a small bank that happens to be stocked to the gills with government money, Gary preys on his mark’s insecurities and longings in order to set up a heist.

The Lookout has been 10 years in the making, during which time distributors hummed and hawed and directors came and went. Which may be just as well: In Sam Mendes’ hands, the movie would have been too clever and referential by half, while David Fincher would have sucked the warmth out of it. Either of those directors would have made shorter, snappier work of the heist than does Frank, who does a perfectly competent, if unremarkable, job. Still, The Lookout is inescapably a screenwriter’s movie and, for those of us who can’t stomach poorly written dialogue even in an action picture, none the worse for it. In due course, Chris’ bruised sense of identity, and his little notebook, will generate a lot of shooting and a variety of outcomes for everyone involved, innocent bystanders included. But the evolving story to be savored in The Lookout is a tale of love — and it’s not Chris’ obsession with a mystery woman in a white coat, or his insipid romance with a golden-hearted tart with the distinctly Elmore-ish name of Luvlee Lemons (played with a touch too much kittenish simpering by Borat squeeze Isla Fisher), who’s dispatched to seduce Chris into Gary’s nefarious fold and ends up charmed by his innocence. The pair has none of the sizzle and banter that made George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez such a hot couple in Out of Sight, and their mutual attraction fizzles into an unresolved exit by Luvlee, which leaves the field properly clear for the goofy, tender friendship between Chris and his roommate and mentor, Lewis (brilliantly played by a husky, bearded Jeff Daniels, who gets all the movie’s funniest lines), a blind but fiercely independent iconoclast who refuses to be patronized by well-meaning or otherwise motivated strangers. Shrouded in darkness yet more clear-sighted than the rest, it’s Lewis who sees why his young protégé is so stuck. “Start at the end,” he tells Chris in a line that serves nicely as a screenwriter’s mantra. “You can’t tell a story if you don’t know where it’s going.” Where The Lookout goes is at once deliciously goofy and ineffably sad, as Chris learns to stop hankering after the impossible and finds a new script he can write alone, or at least with the support of someone he can count on. After all, who wouldn’t trust a best friend whose idea of a good name for their fledgling joint enterprise is “Lew’s Your Lunch”?

THE LOOKOUT | Written and directed by SCOTT FRANK | Produced by WALTER F. PARKES, LAURENCE MARK, ROGER BIRNBAUM and GARY BARBER | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide

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