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The Lived-In World of 'The Lookout'

The Lookout is a writer's thriller. Sure, it's cleanly and efficiently directed, and it contains some crackerjack acting. But the reason it's a real pleasure to watch is that a writer's sensibility is the foundation on which everything is built.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that the writer in question is Scott Frank, making his directing debut. He's known for his past work on Get Shorty and Out of Sight. When Frank has one of his characters say "everything is a story, stories help us make sense of the world," you know the writer believes it.

More than the story, about bank robbery and betrayal, what makes The Lookout a writer's film is its strong sense of character. It's that uncommon genre film which has invested both time and skill in the creation of carefully constructed personalities. And not just one or two, but some half a dozen.

The film's characters may have started out as genre types, but by the time Frank and the cast have done their work, they have both texture and individuality. That cast is led by Jeff Daniels and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once a star of TV's 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris. He's introduced as a hotshot high school athlete in tiny Noel, Kansas. But then the unexpected happens, as it often does in thrillers.

A terrible accident turns the golden boy into a slower, more damaged individual. Chris gets frustrated, confused and angry easily, and, like Guy Pearce's character in Memento, he needs to write everything down if he's to have even a prayer of remembering.

Chris isn't capable of living alone, and his roommate turns out to be the film's most unexpected character. He's an outlandish blind man named Lewis who wears porkpie hats and makes inappropriate jokes. Jeff Daniels plays him beautifully in a performance that underlines the actor's ability to breathe life into the most off-the-wall characters.

Writer-director Scott Frank creates a bleak but comfortably lived-in world for his characters. There's nothing surprising about where this film is headed, but that turns out to be just fine: we're so involved with its people, we wouldn't want to go anywhere else.

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Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.