Film Review | Life of Crime

The latest addition to the ever-expanding list of Elmore Leonard film adaptation is a slow-burning but blackly humorous tale of kidnapping gone wrong.

Home invasion: John Hawkes sneaks up on put-upon housewife Jennifer Aniston in this slow-burning but enjoyable crime-comedy caper
Home invasion: John Hawkes sneaks up on put-upon housewife Jennifer Aniston in this slow-burning but enjoyable crime-comedy caper

Up-and-coming indie writer-director Daniel Schechter takes on one of the most enduring literary cash cows in Hollywood to produce a stylish – though at this point, sadly not all that lucrative – crime-comedy, set in the 70s and featuring an ensemble cast of character actors.

Adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch (1978) and featuring characters we last saw in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), this kidnapping-cum-marital breakdown caper perhaps burns too slowly and melds its ‘hyphenate’ genre mix a tad too subtly for contemporary audiences, if its miserable box office performance thus far is to be taken as a real measure of consensus.

But though it’s not perfect, I’d hate to live in a world where films like Life of Crime don’t get a chance, as they’re edged out by a slew of transforming robots and superheroes.

It certainly offers up a devilishly delectable premise.

Sleazy and tax-dodging businessman Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) heads off to the Bahamas, ostensibly for a business trip but really as an excuse to oversee his illicitly-ballooning wealth and spend some quality time with his mistress, the buxom Melanie (Isla Fisher).

This leaves his put-upon wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) alone at home and vulnerable to the schemes of two potential kidnappers, Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes), who threaten to kill Mickey if Frank doesn’t fork out $1 million for her safe return.

But as my colleague Raphael Vassallo likes to say, “small problem”. Frank is actually not all that fussed about Mickey’s safety – he intends to divorce her the second he’s back.

As the men circle around this awkward attempt at extortion – against their better judgement, Ordell and Robbie have also enlisted the help of unhinged white supremacist Richard (Mark Boone Junior) – the women on both sides of the equation turn out to be far more resourceful than they let on.

Life of Crime in some way serves as a prequel to Jackie Brown – the latter was adapted, with a blacksploitation re-jig, from the 1992 Leonard novel Rum Punch and follows chronologically from The Switch – but apart from the trademark swagger of most Leonard adaptations, this is a far mellower beast.

For one thing, Ordell and Louis come across as an entirely more relaxed pair than their previous cinematic counterparts. Played by Tarantino stalwart Samuel L. Jackson, ‘Brown’s Ordell bordered on the sadistic.

The current version is no less amoral, but any displays of outward viciousness remain verbal, or delegated to secondary characters like Boone Junior’s shambling neo-Nazi firearm-hoarder (“He’s so dumb, it’s adorable,” Ordell tells Louis at one point).

Bey plays him as you’d expect ‘Mos Def’ to play him – a hint of a mischievous smile at every turn, an urbane, but never showy, way with words – and this turns out to be more than enough. Paired with Hawks, probably one of the hardest working character actors in recent years, he goes down a treat.

Hawks certainly makes Louis feel a tad more vital than his predecessor Robert De Niro did (to be fair, De Niro could be said to be playing a later, more decrepit version of the character).

There’s hints of a Stockholm Syndrome romance as Louis is clearly shown to be enamoured by Aniston’s Mickey, and it’s to the Hawks’s credit that it never devolves into pervy leering (that role is, once again, relegated to our dear Richard – a creation so unpleasant he may as well be a horror antagonist ala Leatherface).

But it’s the women who give way to the most satisfying plot developments, showing up their male counterparts to be, at best, bad planners and at worst, fumbling ignoramuses, blinded by greed and ego.

Though Mickey is an infuriatingly passive presence at first, it’s a pleasure to see her morph behind our own backs. She realises that screaming won’t help, and that she’d have to play her cars right. Though she’s a far more Machiavellian creature, Fisher’s Melanie also steps up her game, to amusing effect, only in the final act. This is, after all, a story of revenge and extortion that is too stylish for hysterics and excessive blood-letting.

In fact, the mood’s the thing, really. It would be a sin not to commend the team behind the bare-bones visual construction of the film.

Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, costume designer Anna Terrazas and set designer Jasmine E. Ballou create a seamless and enveloping 1970s vibe, browns and yellows perfectly accentuating the film’s easy-as-Sunday-morning feel and pace. Its crisp look comes close to matching the water-tight construction of a Coen Bros. production… though perhaps the comparison does more harm than good to the film as a whole.

Schechter goes for the same blackly humorous approach to the Coen’s Fargo (1996) – botched home invasion and all – but a few loose ends mark him out as a beginner.

An early chat between Mickey and her young son Bo (Charlie Tahan) appears to be setting up a bona fide emotional arc, but it never gets resolved. A subplot involving fellow socialite Marshall Taylor (Will Forte) – an uptight beta male keen to get into Mickey’s pants – likewise gets short shrift, serving as little more than a plot device.

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