Genre: Comedy, Crime
Directed by: Daniel Schechter
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Mark Boone, Mos Def, Isla Fisher, John Hawkes
If you didn’t already know that Life of Crime comes from Elmore Leonard’s mind (adapted from The Switch), you’d be able to guess pretty early on. His brand of hardboiled crime drama couldn’t easily be copied, although many have tried. With a cinematic ear for dialogue and plotting, it’s no surprise that so many of his stories made it to the screen. Daniel Schechter’s film is the latest in a long line but it bears his hallmarks on the surface alone. Where Leonard filled his world with rich characters and dialogue that reads like a (disturbing) dream, Life of Crime is little more than a frothy imitation that soon loses shape after an engaging start.
For all its other failings, the cast assembled is impressive. Opening in Detroit in 1978, we’re introduced to small time schemers Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Mos Def). They’re mixed up in a plot to get at corrupt property tycoon Frank Dawson’s (Tim Robbins) hidden riches by kidnapping his wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston). Perhaps it could have worked but the kidnappers are interrupted by the unwanted amorous attentions of Marshall (Will Forte) and then thrown off course by Frank’s mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher) and the idiocy of their Nazi appreciating co-conspirator Richard (Mark Boone Jr.).
With so many high quality actors circling each other, it takes time to realise no one’s actually going anywhere. Before that truth dawns, Life of Crime rattles by at a fair pace. There are moments where Leonard’s lightness of touch shines through, most notably when Marshall is in full seduction mode or Richard is acting up the sex pest Nazi sympathiser. His decision to fill Mickey’s prison with peep holes for his own satisfaction goes wrong when someone makes the mistake of equipping her with a pack of cigarettes. The subject matter is dark but it avoids tipping into unpleasantness.
Successful as much of the humour may be, comic set pieces can only carry the story so far. With such a large number of characters in play, the scene is set for a series of convoluted twists and turns. Schechter duly delivers but after a while it becomes apparent the repeated changes in direction have let the plot walk round in circles until it ends up in the same place. The sheer regularity with which the twists pile up soon becomes tedious.
It’s around this point that the characters begin to reveal themselves as shallow crime pastiches. Mickey is the repressed housewife who’s jolted out of her shell by her ordeal while her husband is the charmless philanderer seen on screens so often. Hawkes gets to be a criminal with a heart of gold while Boone is so outrageous he doesn’t seem remotely real. Ordell is just vaguely cool and all the blander for it.
The period setting is the most convincing element on display. At least here, the characters are dancing to a late 70s tune. While this is amusing for a while, the fun can’t last. Just a tiny bit more depth would have gone a long way. Instead, Life of Crime is far too content to play it quick and easy to no one’s benefit in the end.