Like any author, Elmore Leonard has had his share of hits and misses in terms of film adaptations of his work, with Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty probably in the top tier, and misfires like Be Cool and Freaky Deaky hovering near the bottom. Life of Crime, adapted and directed by Daniel Schechter, hovers somewhere around the middle. Based on the novel The Switch, the movie features a terrific ensemble cast and a number of clever plot and character turns, but never crackles with the hip, sexy, streetwise energy of the best Leonard films.
The 1970s-set film stars Jennifer Aniston as Mickey, the naïve wife of corrupt real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), who is kidnapped by low-level criminals Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (yasiin bey). The pair hope to squeeze $1 million out of Frank by holding Mickey captive and blackmailing him over his shady business dealings and his mistress (Isla Fisher). But the kidnappers get a rude surprise when they find out that Frank was planning to file for divorce anyway and might not even be interested in getting his wife back. Thus begins a series of escapades in which the men find themselves increasingly in over their heads, while the women – especially Mickey – begin to take control of the situation.
Life of Crime has many of the standard Leonard trademarks: funny dialogue, vaguely scuzzy schemes enacted on the fringes of society, cleanly plotted but still unexpected twists, and characters who gradually reveal what they’re really made of in surprising ways. Aniston – who always seems to rise to the occasion in smaller films like this – is impressive as Mickey, who is thrust from what she thought was her carefully ordered and somewhat sheltered life into a scenario where all the foundations of that life are kicked out from under her. Hawkes is also his usual excellent self as Louis, not that bright but also not heartless, while Robbins continues to prove why at this point he is the go-to guy to play a real a***ole (and I say that as a compliment).
Yet, the movie never really takes off. It may be because Schechter doesn’t quite have the skills yet as a director to match the material (he’s directed two previous, little-scene but well-regarded features). The pacing and comic timing seems off. Life of Crime moves slowly and feels constrained, with most of the action taking place in the drab room where Mickey is being kept or Frank’s Bahamas condo. A subplot involving Mickey and Frank’s friend Marshall (Will Forte) – who secretly desires Mickey yet selfishly keeps information about her kidnapping to himself – never adds up to much; you could probably take Forte out of the picture without doing much damage.
Still, Life of Crime is diverting enough that its flaws don’t render it that difficult to watch. The story itself is relatively light, and the resolution is satisfying as far as it goes. We’ll give kudos again to the cast, who all bring their A-game (it’s worth nothing that Hawkes and bey are playing younger versions of the characters played by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown, which is kind of neat for diehard Leonard fans), but the movie just ends up evaporating from one’s memory shortly after the lights come up. I saw it in a screening room; there’s a very good chance, I suspect, that it might actually play better on VOD. It’s simply a minor adaptation of the late, great Leonard, which I suppose is not a crime in itself.
Life of Crime is out now in theaters and on VOD.