The title, to start with. "The Lookout"? My God, that's slack -- and these movies don't make themselves; meetings were probably held to get to that. Then move on to the poster, one of those long-afternoon-of-Photoshopping jobs, featuring a moody headshot of leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cheekbones clenched above reservoirs of shadow, expression opaque enough to pass for badass or maybe jetlag, framed by pictures of the supporting cast, including a shot of a cutie that, with a little tone adjustment, could be an ad for an internet dating site, and a washed-out image of a hand clenching a revolver, promising action. It's a package readymade to, someday soon, face out anonymously from New Release shelves and do a brisk business with the indifferent "What's new this week?" crowd.
All of this, of course, could mean nothing -- plenty of worthwhile movies have come swaddled in unpromising packaging. In the case of "The Lookout," this is just a first indicator of a film that's enervating in the way that only top-to-bottom mediocrity can be. Veteran screenwriter Scott Frank's directorial coming-out is a bricolage of screen-tested "indie" junk -- a "smart, complex" performance from Gordon-Levitt, a beardy Jeff Daniels, exhaustingly competent filmmaking suffused with low-key melancholy -- which is to say it risks absolutely nothing, and never threatens to be unexpected.
Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a former Golden Boy (hockey star, scion of a well-to-do family) who plummets into the margins of society after being responsible for a senior-year car crash that leaves his passengers dead and him with a lightly scrambled brain. Four years later, he's still in rehab, working the graveyard shift buffing floors at his hometown bank and pining for the salad days -- when a sleaze who knows how to pull head games on impressionable Chris sidles up on a neighboring barstool, and promises to lift him back among the winners for a bit of help on a heist.
Daniels, carefully measured as Chris's blind roommate, stands out by virtue of sheer presence among a bevy of unrewarding supporting slots. These include Sergio Di Zeo as a local police deputy so inhumanly upbeat that dangling him in danger when time comes for the film to "get dark" is the equivalent of tossing an infant in front of a truck and calling it gravitas, and Greg Dunham as a sepulchral trenchcoat-and-shades killer wrenched from the study hall doodles of a socially maladjusted 14-year-old.
"The Lookout"'s backdrop of rural Anytown, Kansas-stood in for by Manitoba, Canada -- is shot cleanly and professionally, to the point of banality; DP Avar Kivilo, who lensed "A Simple Plan" and "The Ice Harvest," does know how to point a camera at snow, and the powder is nice enough. But where old budget noir could make generic backlots vibrate anxiety, and a David Cronenberg or a Jeff Wall could aestheticize the antiseptic Canadian cityscape, "The Lookout" just comes off as utterly anonymous (the bar Chris frequents? "The Local"). Despite the obviously sweated-out novelty of the film's sensitive character study/crime flick crossbreed, which comes out displaying the distinctive cliches of both parents, the whole project badly wants for a single note of distinction, exacerbated by an utter dumbness to specifics. Oh, is it "all about the characters"? Gordon-Levitt's casting is either a blown "against-type" experiment or a case of real incompetence; he doesn't have the physicality to pass for even the husk of a star jock -- and I am happy to be called out here, but I don't think that hockey performance gets you countywide King of the School status anywhere in Kansas.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]