SXSW: The Lookout, Suffering Man's Charity

With minutes to spare I skidded to a halt in front of the Paramount Theater, Austin’s premiere, classic, ultimate movie theater. It’s a stunningly beautiful venue, the kind of old theater that has actual balconies, curtains, and a stage. They’ve restored it and maintained it perfectly, and if there’s any better atmosphere for a premiere in Texas I haven’t seen it. And while there are more than half a dozen other theaters I’ll be watching movies in around town over the next couple of days, I’m glad I kicked things off here.

It’s 6:00, and this is one of the very first showings of the fest, so I had no trouble getting in. No lines, plenty of empty seats. That would soon change. But first up, the Alan directed indie Suffering Man’s Charity. For most of the movies I watch during SXSW, expect just a quick hit overview. For some, I may not be able to stop with that. I’m playing it by ear.

Suffering Man’s Charity

Before the film started Alan Cumming was brought out to introduce it. He introduced it with a story which he said would illustrate the dark Scottish sense of humor, and presumably let us know what he was going for with his film. The joke: U2 is playing a massive concert in Scotland. Before the concert starts, Bono comes out on stage and calls for complete silence. He claps one. He claps twice. He claps three times. Bono says “Every time I clap, a child dies in Africa.” A man shouts from the audience, “Why the fuck are you clapping then?”

Cumming’s joke aside, if Suffering Man’s Charity is some sort of dark Scottish comedy, then I’m clearly not Scottish enough to get it. Cumming plays John Vandermark a fastidious American cello teacher who has allowed a freeloader played by former ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel” star David Boreanz, to live with him. Cumming’s let’s Boreanz use him, because frankly, he’s obsessed with him. Sadly only one of them is gay, and it’s Cumming. The cello teacher soon becomes fed up with his lodger, and there’s a confrontation. It goes poorly, and suddenly the movie morphs into Misery. Actually, that’s kind of where it goes downhill.

Cumming, as he almost always is, is lots of fun to watch as the spastic, pretentious, and completely strange John Vandermark. Boreanz isn’t bad, but seems more comfortable as a zombie than a man. Sadly, the movie is full of bizarre, inexplicably behavior and keeps switching genres as if it can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a comedy? A horror movie? A thriller? A serial killer drama? Another movie about tortured writers? A really screwed up episode of ‘Fraser”? I don’t know.

The script plays out like it was originally constructed for the stage, not the screen, and if it wasn’t then it should have been. It just has that kind of feel. As a Broadway farce I could see Suffering Man’s Charity winning big audiences. It’s mildly ironic, has some funny speeches, and takes place on a single, unchanging set. Throw in some musical numbers and you’ve got a Broadway hit. As a movie, it seems out of sorts.

By the time Suffering ended I had only enough spare minutes to grab a quick bite to eat before getting back in line for The Lookout. Across the street, was a little pizza place. It looked empty. Odd, but since I was in a hurry I rushed in and ordered. It was shortly after I paid that I noticed what was blaring out of the television behind me. Billy Graham. At maximum volume. Not just any Billy Graham, but Billy Graham preaching about homosexuality. As you might expect, he didn’t have a lot of nice things to say. No wonder this place was empty. Feeling somewhat guilty for frequenting an openly homophobic eatery, I wolfed down my food (refraining from cleaning up my trash as a way of sticking it to the man) and was back across the street in time to join the now long line for The Lookout.

The Lookout

The Lookout stars Brick’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as former High School king Chris Pratt. Four years ago his life took a turn for the worse when a brutal car accident left him brain damaged. No, this isn’t another Memento rip-off, though I’m sure when I describe it, it’s going to sound like one. Just trust me. Chris’s problems are more realistic. He has difficulty keeping sequences straight in his head. Complex problems make him frustrated. He avoids reading the newspaper, because it just makes him angry. Making dinner is a challenge. He gets through the day with reminders scratched down in his notebook. But after years of therapy Chris is now mostly self-sufficient. He lives on his own with his only friend, a blind roommate named Lewis, played by Jeff Daniels. Stay with me, because here’s where it gets fun. Chris is the night janitor at a bank. A bank which is about to be robbed. The crooks planning the heist use Chris’s frustration with his disability to lure him into joining their plot. Suddenly a guy who can’t figure out how to open a can of tomatoes is involved in a complex game of crosses and double crosses. Chris has a hard time remembering what to do after he wakes up in the morning, how will he handle a conspiracy?

The answer is a brilliant, edge-of-your seat, completely engrossing, sometimes thrilling drama from first-time director Scott Frank. Yeah, that Scott Frank. The guy who wrote Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report. He’s a good writer, but after seeing The Lookout I think he’s even better as a director. The movie is crisply constructed and razor sharp. The Lookout is flat out edgy.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an even better performance here than the one he gave in Brick, and if you’ve seen Brick then you know that’s saying something. I just can’t get over how good he is. Chris is frustrated and angry, and completely likable all at once. Jeff Daniels is doing the best work he’s done here in years. They’ve dressed him up to look like “The Dude”, but his performance couldn’t be further from it. Together, they have great chemistry. Remember the Michael Keaton/Peter Boyle movie The Dream Team? Cross that with Memento, add in a dash of Brick and you’ve got something altogether different… and better. You have The Lookout.

The Lookout is a completely engaging film. The audience here at SXSW went wild for it, and I can’t wait to see what happens when the rest of the world gets a chance to see it. If there’s a downside here, it’s that seeing this on the first day means every other film I see will have to try and measure up to it. That may be a tall order. It’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, and if it’s not the best thing I see at this festival, then know that I’m having one helluva time.

And that wraps up Friday. Tomorrow I hope to catch Robert Rodriguez as he explains Grindhouse live and in person during “Grindhouse 101”. The Ten, Sisters, and Black Sheep are all on the schedule for Saturday. If I keep up a good head of steam, I should catch all of them. Till then.

For more of our SXSW 2007 coverage click here.

Josh Tyler