Watching the movie for this article demonstrated the best and worst of streaming culture for me.
On the one hand, I believe it’s safe to say original TV shows on streaming platforms have become the cultural event that unites everyone. Even if we’re not seeing the same movie or reading the same book, seemingly everyone is waiting with bated breath for the next big streaming hit.
Right now, WandaVision is among the most popular things on the planet. But when I tried to watch show creator Jac Schaeffer’s first film, the independent comedy TiMER, I couldn’t find a copy anywhere. It’s not on Amazon (unless you want to pay $74 for the DVD), it’s not on Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock, or The Criterion Channel. Even a search for it on Shudder came up empty.
Streaming services are popularizing creators who, even if they’ve been around in Hollywood for a long time, would never have become household names. Yet they’re not allowing audiences to experience someone’s entire body of work. Only the TV shows and movies with the most hits are kept around. The more obscure things, even if they’re made by popular filmmakers, are increasingly regulated to more obscure services – if they don’t disappear altogether.
This is how it used to be with chain video stores. I know. I was there. Blockbuster had 30 copies of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me but if you wanted to find a Guy Maddin movie, forget it. Streaming is undeniably better, but it was supposed to resolve this exact issue. Everything should be available for the people willing to look for it.
Oh well. I was still determined to examine a film by someone who created one of the most popular streaming originals of the past year and a half. TiMER may be an outlier, because I was able to find the directorial debut of Scott Frank, the co-creator and director of the enormously popular Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, fairly easily. And it was well worth it.
Frank has been a screenwriter for a long time. He wrote such movies as Little Man Tate and Out of Sight, as well as cowriting Minority Report and Marley & Me. But he didn’t direct his first movie until 2007, when he made The Lookout with Joseph Gordon Levitt.
And, surprisingly, despite the wildly different mediums and genres, there many parallels between Lookout and Gambit. I’ll surrender myself and say, as of this writing, I’ve only seen the first episode of the Netflix miniseries. But even that first episode shows how Frank is focused on some very specific themes and tropes. I was genuinely surprised with just how thematically similar the two works are and wondered why The Lookout is not more popular.
The film stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Christ Pratt (this was in 2007, remember, so it’s not a reference to *that* Chris Pratt), a man who suffered a massive head injury due to a car crash. He subsequently has trouble functioning in his daily life. He must write down what people say to him in order to remember things, he blurts out inappropriate statements (like how he wants to have sex with his therapy sponsor), and he’s barely able to financially support himself. He works as a janitor in a bank, but this position brings him to the attention of Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode – he was Ozymandias in the original Watchmen movie) who uses Luvlee (Isla Fisher) to recruit him into his plan to rob the bank Pratt works for. Frustrated with his life after his injury and his living situation with his blind roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels), who dreams of opening a restaurant with him, Pratt agrees to help pull off the heist. And, as I am sure you’ve guessed, things spiral out of control.
The first thing that struck me watching The Lookout is how similar Chris Pratt and Gambit’s Beth Harmon are. They’re both victims of car crashes who can’t properly relate to anyone after the accident. Pratt isn’t a savant but is emotionally closed off the same way Beth is. Neither of them feel like they need to develop any personal relationships. In Pratt’s case, it’s because he’s scared of how the other victims in the car would treat him and how he’s worried no one will take him seriously. In Beth’s case, it’s because she’s never known anything but a strict environment that never cared about her interests.
It’s easy to see how both characters ended up coming to the conclusions they did. In fact, The Lookout has several visual parallels to The Queen’s Gambit. The scene that introduces us to Pratt’s father (Bruce McGill) has the characters playing chess. His father beats him at the game (“Check. In fact, Checkmate.”) in a manner that undercuts Pratt’s masculinity and his adulthood. Pratt wants to be his own person and wants to have the life he was seemingly headed for, with the same beautiful girlfriend Kelly (Laura Vandervoot, whose character survived the crash and shows up later in the movie) and the same success and attention his hockey playing brought him when he was younger. Beth never had a chance, but Chris had his life yanked away from him and he’s acutely aware of it.
Chris is a fascinating character and I understood how he was seduced by Gary. First, Gary used the sort of woman Chris would have easily attracted in his glory days. Second, even though Chris is initially scared of Gary’s plans to rob a bank, Gary’s statements about Chris’s life and how he is entirely dependent on his rich father are very easy to understand. Chris has been told he doesn’t have to worry about things like a pregnant wife by other characters and he’s scared of ideas – like Lewis’s idea of the restaurant called Lew’s Your Lunch – that could potentially change his life. Gary’s monologue about the promise of power would convince practically anyone.
The title and premise makes this movie sound like a heist movie, but Heat this is not. Yes, we get a bank robbery later that leads to a shootout but the movie wisely focuses on Chris and his living situation. He slowly finds the ability to assert himself, even if, due to his injury, he has to copy someone else. One great scene towards the end of the movie has Chris repeating something Gary said to him (“First you get the money, then you get the power.”) I also enjoyed how the movie portrayed his brain injury. I can’t think of another film that handles the topic with as much sensitivity as this one. Chris doesn’t have any nervous tics or quirks other filmmakers would add to show how “crazy” he is, like in Joker. He looks and acts just like everyone else. We only learn about his internal struggles from his film noir-esque narration and when we see him furiously scribble into his notebook. And, ironically, the film ends with Chris winning after he remembers something everyone else has forgotten. It’s a challenging character study most screenwriters and directors wouldn’t try.
I enjoyed The Lookout. It’s a surprisingly strong directorial debut. But it also, more than others I’ve covered in this series, shows how Scott Frank knew what he needed to do when he made The Queen’s Gambit. What should have been a boring premise is fascinating TV precisely because Frank knows how to get an audience to relate to his characters and he does it using people we haven’t seen regularly portrayed in any media. That’s what makes The Lookout work and it’s what made The Queen’s Gambit so popular.