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The Lookout/Reign Over Me 

Mark Palermo says grief is not just a boxing match.

If you watch enough movies, grief starts looking like a temporary setback. The death of a close relation is something a character needs to overcome to discover his or her full potential—no different than the climactic boxing match in a Rocky film, or an upcoming spelling bee that's been consuming a character with fear. This year's Catch and Release spelled it out in clear terms. 1) Setup: Jennifer Garner feels crippling loss resulting from her fiance's accidental death. 2) Conflict: Grief sucks and her friends wish she'd snap out of it. 3) Resolution: Garner has a few weeks to deal with it and is OK again.

It's a way for cowardly movies to pretend to address serious issues without addressing them at all. Shell shock runs through The Lookout and Reign Over Me. These films detail lives offset by tragedy through the bitter taste of experience.

Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the brain-damaged young janitor in The Lookout, has his life's turning point detailed in the first scene. Driving three of his friends down a rural highway, the high school hockey star flaunts his invincibility. Turning off the headlights, the kids see hundreds of fireflies around them. It's a great visual idea—director Scott Frank makes youth look infinite, only to give it an abrupt close. Chris collides with a combine harvester.

Two of those friends were killed and Chris, four years later, is trying to gain basic control of his surroundings. Living with a blind roommate (Jeff Daniels), Levitt's blank-slate features encompass the character's guilt with a slippery sense of identity. Frank, a screenwriter making his directing debut, composes each scene with intricate atmosphere and behaviour. Oddballs are provided a rich setting—a tone and texture Curtis Hanson achieved in Wonder Boys.

The Lookout isn't stronger as a whole because it tries to fit a character piece into thriller conventions. Like Frank's best scripts, Minority Report and Out of Sight, the film centres on regular people thrust into a larger criminal plot. But he doesn't reconcile how established themes of disability feed the third act's bank heist. It's a strong film that fails when it has pretensions to genre.

It's the restraint from typical "story conflict" that helps legitimize Reign Over Me. Writer-director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) still reaches for some phoney emotional responses, especially when he sees fit to paint a main character as a comedic Rain Man-innocent. But the dynamic applied to, and extending beyond, the film's central friendship reveals truth: It's about people needing people.

Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a dentist who sees his old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) on a Manhattan sidewalk. Charlie was once a dentist, too, but gave up his practice after his wife and daughters were killed in 9/11. He's blocked out his past and most of his present.

Using a real event as the basis for fiction places Reign Over Me's drama in contemporary reality. Probing the personal effects of national trauma, it's more valuable than the fake subversion of a national guardsman in The Hills Have Eyes 2 admitting he distrusts the president, or when Mark Wahlberg finds his own brand of American law in Shooter, condemning institutional bloodlust to dignify their own.

The multiracial friendship in Reign Over Me speaks of shared needs. On one hand, it's a movie that gives credence to thinking in "post-9/11 terms." Binder's strength, however, is in connecting characters to the world and then connecting them to each other. His realist take on the wounds of loss finds virtue in dependence.

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