Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fine Young Criminals

Disturbia (d. DJ Caruso)
The Lookout (d. Scott Frank)

What do Disturbia and The Lookout have in common? Loads, as it turns out. They’re both promising mid-year releases carried on the shoulders of hot young stars with plenty still to prove. Both are also mid-budgeted thrillers with easily blurbable, trailer-friendly plotting let down by lax detail and a mudslide erosion of plausibility. Neither sucks, quite, but neither really satisfies on the terms it offers us.

Both, coincidentally, begin with tragic road accidents, but here the similarities end. Disturbia needs Shia LaBeouf’s dad to be dead, in order to remove a key authority figure from his life, provide a pretext for his assault on a tactless Spanish teacher, and thereby get him placed under legally-enforced house arrest for its duration. The Lookout, for its part, needs to afflict Joseph Gordon-Levitt with severe head injuries, establish a vaguely Guy-Pearce-in-Memento-like inability to put his memories into sequence, and open up a pit of insoluble guilt at the core of his emotions.

Me, I’ll take the brisk, impersonal pragmatism of the first movie’s concept over the woolly, voiceovered, “character-driven” pretensions of the second, and for at least 45 minutes Disturbia is both the cheesier and much the better movie. You need a fair tolerance for blaring teen-rock and wurd-up-dawg dialogue, but at least they’re getting on with it: LaBeouf’s confinement within a fixed perimeter around his house is amusingly established, and the Rear Window stuff begins in earnest with the arrival of fresh next-door hottie Ashley (Sarah Roemer), who has a habit of taking lubricious dips precisely when DJ Caruso and his screenwriters need (and indeed want) her to.

It’s easy to let the film off its mechanical foregrounding of every plot beat, at least while the main thriller premise is coming into focus: each establishing sequence has a completely transparent function that you predicted it would have to have about ten minutes earlier. But then it keeps on and on like this. Unlike the campier Hitchcock homage What Lies Beneath, where entire reels were, for better and worse, devoted to ridiculous dead-end subplots, there’s really nothing left up this film’s sleeve once we’ve deduced where it’s headed. We know, from a combination of disappointingly predictable casting and the fact that there’s no other way the scenario can go, that creepy neighbour David Morse HAS to be a mass murderer. It’s just a question of how many creepy deer corpses are going to be found in his creepy garage until a human one pops up and the police actually arrive in time.

If we’re ranking the things-going-bump-in-the-suburbs genre, I’ll take the Zemeckis film over this, and, naturally, I’ll take the delicious Monster House (which he exec produced) over either of them. Disturbia’s script is too vapid and its execution too studio-safe to afford the real frissons of contemporary unease (and creepiness) its title seems to portend, partly because the screenwriters haven’t had the sense to throw in nearly enough suspicious or sinister minor characters. It’s always good to see Viola Davis, but she’s largely wasted as an officious cop, and Carrie-Anne Moss, in the barely-bothered-with role of LaBeouf’s mother, continues to look in vain for a genuine function outside of The Matrix.

Still, it has LaBeouf himself, whose feverish comic timing was the one thing I enjoyed in the ear-bashing demolition derby of Transformers. Caruso’s movie gives its young lead plenty of reasons to break a sweat, and he has a lot of fun acting under siege from hormones and paranoia at the same time, getting into his coltish stride often enough to keep things rhythmic and lively. When the script surprises a reaction out of him, as when Roemer turns up dripping wet on his doorstep, he does flustered double takes as good as anyone’s, and keeps making snap acting decisions that pay off, gesturally and emotionally. LaBeouf isn’t picking great movies, it has to be said, but he’s flinging himself around them with enough abandon and enthusiasm to bump each one up a notch.


And so to his rival in the edgy pin-up stakes. Much as I was impressed by him in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, I’m not sure Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really adding much to his films right now, and I’m wary of going back to that film (and to the self-regarding if distinctively off-kilter Brick) for fear of having that view confirmed. To be honest, I’m beginning to mistrust him in the way I instinctively mistrust someone who can’t crack a smile. He works hard in close-up to suggest a ticking introspection, but you sense that he wants you to notice the effort. And there’s something ostentatiously gritty and humourless about his script choices – he’s picking movies that can be built around him, and that will make him look good, rather than ones he can help energise or improve much.

The Lookout is exactly as good as Scott Frank’s script, which is to say not very. It’s more sub-Mamet than sub-Elmore Leonard, and, if you really want a note of caution rammed home, it reminded me of Reindeer Games: the con-artistry’s transparent, the heist itself barely memorable. There’s an eye-catching role for Match Point’s Matthew Goode as the criminal ring-leader, but it mainly has the trappings of a killer career move – Goode can do an American accent, he can do threatening charm, but why the asthma inhaler? Who is this guy meant to be, really?

Fair stretches of the movie work thanks to Jeff Daniels, sagacious and endearingly prickly as Gordon-Levitt’s blind flatmate and best friend. The standout scene – the only one that rises to the level of Frank’s Out of Sight work – is a midnight encounter between Daniels and Isla Fisher’s in-on-the-con seductress, in which he takes the piss out of her name (“Luvlee Lemons”) and keeps throwing out casually barbed intimations that, while he doesn’t know exactly what her game is, he knows she’s got one. Fisher, whom I liked a lot in the underrated Wedding Daze, has a nicely ambivalent presence here as the only character who looks a little unsure about fulfilling her generic brief. I like her even more now.

Unlike the garishly designed and grimly lit Disturbia, The Lookout is at least sleekly shot by Alar Kivilo, all wintry reckoning and clean lines, but it doesn’t add up to much, and its pleasures are as airy, ambient and eventually superficial as the other film’s are disposably popcorn-tastic. Note to Gordon-Levitt: do lighten up! It’s time for LaBeouf to get serious. Grade for both films: C

3 comments:

Nick Davis said...

I'm feeling better about resisting all the glowing Stateside reviews, especially since I'm a Gordon-Levitt skeptic.

On the happier side, at least in terms of film quality, 12:08 East of Bucharest just got here and Lady Chatterley will be back for a one-night engagement in September, so I'll look forward to those.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I haven't seen either of these, so I can't comment - just wanted to say: great to have you back and posting!

Also - I'm similarly wary of Gordon-Levitt since: 1) what sex appeal? where?; 2) he picks good scripts and directors - kudos for that - but the only time I've seen him give a better than just-barely-adequate performance was in Brick (a movie that doesn't get enough credit, by the way!), where he was completely adequate.

Michael Parsons said...

Gordon-Levitt is full of sex appeal. Totally. I also think he could be a great actor someday.

However these two films have no appealed to me. Disturbia I will see as it looks like fun. The Lookout appears to take itself very seriously though.