Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Daniel Schecter
Stars: Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, yasiin bey, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher, Mark Boone Junior, Will Forte, Charlie Tahan.
The gritty crime novels of the late, great and prolific Elmore Leonard feature a colourful cast of inept, low life crooks who are usually out of their depth and caught up in ambitious but half-baked crooked enterprises that inevitably go awry. Leonard’s dialogue is droll and snappy and his prose style is inherently cinematic, which means they should lend themselves to the big screen. But it takes a director of great vision, flair, imagination and an understanding of the genre to do his novels justice.
The best film adaptations of his works have been Steven Soderbergh’s stylish and sexy Out Of Sight, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The latest screen adaptation of one of his works is Life Of Crime, which is based on his 70’s novel Switch, which acts as a precursor to Jackie Brown and features earlier, younger incarnations of some of the same characters.
The film is set in Detroit in the late 70s. Louis Garal (John Hawkes) and Ordell Robbie (rapper Mos Def, here credited under the name of yasiin bey) are two low life criminals who meet in jail. We get to see them at work early in their careers before they evolved into the dissolute characters we met in Jackie Brown where they were played by Robert De Niro and Samuel L Jackson respectively.
They hatch a plan to kidnap Mikey (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a corrupt and wealthy real estate mogul Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), who has been syphoning money off his clients and building his own nest egg. They figure that if Frank goes to the police they can expose his crooked dealings. But unfortunately for our hapless crooks, Frank has just filed for divorce from Mikey and refuses to pay the ransom. Frank has fled to his luxurious pad in the Bahamas where he has holed up with his new, sexy and manipulative mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher), who has her own selfish reasons to ensure that Frank doesn’t negotiate with the kidnappers.
Meanwhile Mikey begins to develop a bond with Louis, who is a more sympathetic and friendly character, and who also protects her from their third collaborator Richard (Mark Boone Junior), a sleazy neo Nazi and pervert with lots of WWII memorabilia and a huge collection of military hardware.
Life Of Crime is the most ambitious film to date yet from little known writer/director Daniel Schecter, who remains reasonable respectful to the source material and captures Leonard’s tone with this adaptation. Schecter captures the 70s look and feel, through costumes, cars, and a great soundtrack that is evocative of the era. Inbal Weinberg’s production design is also steeped in the look and feel of the 70s.
Leonard’s villains are not usually the brightest of people. Schecter has assembled a solid ensemble cast to play these colourful, low life and despicable characters and ruthless people. Hawkes brings a rough and cynical edge and a nervous energy to his Louis, who is more sympathetic than the stoner played by De Niro. His performance is not as edgy as De Niro’s interpretation of the character. Similarly Mos Def lacks the authority and commanding presence that Jackson brought to the character. However, the pair develop a great rapport that helps carry the movie along on a wave of gentle humour.
Robbins is also good as the clueless and selfish Frank. Will Forte, who was so good as Bruce Dern’s earnest son in the recent Nebraska, provides some comic relief here as the hapless Marshall, who has a crush on Mikey, but whose actions when he discovers that she has been kidnapped are shameful and feckless.
It’s good to see Aniston is a more meaty role as she moves away from her comfort zone of bland and breezy romantic comedies. She brings reserves of strength and grows in confidence as she goes from the helpless, neglected wife and emotionally abused victim unaware of her husband’s corrupt business practices to a ruthless manipulator herself who ultimately calls the shots, even though she spends much of the time bound and blindfolded.
In fact both the women here seem to be stronger and somehow in a position of power, twisting the males around their fingers with a combination of sexuality and guile. Fisher is also great as the ditzy, gold digging Melanie, a role played by Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown.
Although it contains all the classic elements of Leonard’s stories, Life Of Crime is a lesser example of Leonard’s work. Life Of Crime is not the best adaptation of one of Leonard’s novels, but this quirky comedy is fun for a while and the plot has lots of twists. The violence is low key and softened with touches of off beat humour. The sinuous screenplay bears some tonal similarities to the Coen brothers blackly comic Fargo with its bumbling crooks and Ruthless People, the 1986 comedy in which Danny De Vito told kidnappers to keep his shrewish wife. In fact there were early plans to try and film Switch in 1986 but they were shelved due to some surface similarities to Ruthless People.