"The Lookout" has a premise that, on paper at least, might seem contrived. A Midwestern high school star, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), almost dies in a car accident while joy riding with friends and suffers serious brain damage. He goes from being the school's hockey star to working as the night janitor in a small local bank, which, it turns out, is being cased for a robbery by a high school acquaintance, Gary (Matthew Goode).
If you think you can see where this is going, you'd be only half right. Although writer-director Scott Frank, making his directorial debut, plays out a series of film-noir conventions, he rejiggers the genre by making Chris a hero more akin to, say, a character in "Awakenings," than to one in "Double Indemnity."
Chris is from a wealthy family but prefers living in a rundown apartment he shares with a blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) who compensates for his condition by zeroing in on everybody's frailties. He is, however, protective of Chris, who is not as self-sustaining as he would like to believe he is. Although Chris has ambitions to become a bank teller, his short-term memory is so bad that he needs to carry around a notepad just to jot down essential information in order to get him through the day. In conversation, such as the one he has at the beginning of the film with his attractive case worker (Carla Gugino, in a too brief appearance), he often blurts out uncensored and inappropriate comments.
When Gary, trying to cozy up to Chris, introduces him to local stripper (Isla Fisher) Luvlee Lemons, the sadness of Chris's situation comes full circle. He thinks that being the inside man in the robbery will bring him the cash he needs to become a new person. Chris doesn't see what we do – that his dreams are largely delusional.
But – and here's where the film throws us a curve – he is also far more enterprising than we might have expected. As the story plays out, he turns his disability into an advantage through sheer force of will.
At times "The Lookout" stretches credulity. Having a brain-damaged ex-golden boy team up with a jokester blind man is a bit much even by noir standards.
Frank wrote the film adaptations of Elmore Leonard's "Out of Sight" and "Get Shorty," and at times he seems to be trying for a similar tough-tender tone. But the material here is more fragile than Leonard's, more touchy-feely.
In the end, that's a good thing. We already have a surfeit of movie wiseguys. Gordon-Levitt, best known for TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun" and offbeat indies such as "Brick" and "Mysterious Skin," is affable but also carries a suggestion of something dark and inchoate. Daniels transforms what might have been a one-note role into a many-layered marvel.
Nobody can play stupid better than Daniels – think "Dumb and Dumber" – and, as it turns out, few can play smarter. He's a sharp asset in a sharp movie. Grade: B+
• Rated R for language, some violence, and sexual content.