Directed by: Daniel Schechter.
Written by: Daniel Schechter based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring: Jennifer Aniston (Mickey Dawson), Yasiin Bey (Ordell Robbie), John Hawkes (Louis Gara), Isla Fisher (Melanie), Will Forte (Marshall Taylor), Mark Boone Junior (Richard Monk), Tim Robbins (Frank Dawson), Clea Lewis (Tyra Taylor), Charlie Tahan (Bo Dawson), Kevin Corrigan (Ray).
Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite novelists – his crime books are fast paced with great dialogue and a collection of colorful, often quite dumb, lowlifes who hatch complicated schemes that seem ill thought out, and always go horribly wrong. Screenwriters have learned over the years that the best thing they can do when they adapt Leonard is to simply copy his dialogue from the novel into the screenplay – they aren’t going to improve on it, and if you get actors capable of delivering it, they can make an entertaining movie. The latest Leonard adaptation, Life of Crime is based on the Leonard novel The Switch, which was a precursor to Rum Punch, which Quentin Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown. In this film, Yasiin Bey (sorry, he’ll always be Mos Def to me), John Hawkes and Ilsa Fisher play younger versions of the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda in the Tarantino film – and a few questions of continuity aside (like the fact that DeNiro and Fonda don’t seem to know each other in the Tarantino film, although they meet here), the film basically works as a low-key, lightweight prequel to the later film. The three actors, especially Bey, have clearly studied the performances of their counterparts, and incorporated some of them into their own work. The film isn’t nearly as good as Tarantino’s underrated masterwork – he made an epic out of these lowlife characters, and writer-director Daniel Schechter aims far lower, but this is still an enjoyable little crime film.
The film opens in 1977 Detroit – a time and place it accurately portrays without going over the top with the clothes or hairstyles, as well it could have. Ordell Robbie (Bey) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) have hatched a kidnapping plan – they’ll take Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a real estate millionaire, Frank (Tom Robbins), who is doing a lot of things that are not exactly legal to grow his fortune. Robbie and Gara want $1 million from Frank to not kill Mickey – the only problem being that Frank is currently in the Caribbean with his mistress, Melanie (Fisher), and may not actually want Mickey back. As you may well guess, things get complicated on the other end as well – when Mickey and Louis start to get to know, and even like, each other. The movie introduces another few supporting characters to liven things up – Will Forte as Marshall Taylor, a weak willed little coward in love with Mickey, and Mark Boone Junior, as Richard Monk, a neo-Nazi who is working with Ordell and Louis in holding Mickey.
Life of Crime doesn’t come close to the best Leonard adaptations – like Jackie Brown, which had the courage to digress from the main plot often, and spend time just getting to know its characters, before shoving them into its complex plot of double and triple crosses, or Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, which was highly stylized and crackled with sexual tension. It also doesn’t have the glossy, Hollywood sheen of the two Chili Palmer movies – Get Short or Be Cool. Screenwriter/director Daniel Schechter keeps everyone in a lower key than that – and he gets fine work from his cast as a result. No one in the movie is all that bright, but some are smarter than they first seem (especially Melanie) – and Fisher gives the type of performance that makes me wish she would get better roles (much like she did in The Lookout). Bey and Hawkes work well together, with an easy chemistry – and Forte adds another fine, dramatic performance to his resume. Most surprising of all is probably Aniston – undeniably the biggest star in the cast, but she doesn’t overtake the movie with her star power, but genuinely becomes a part of the ensemble.
Life of Crime doesn’t reach the heights of the best Leonard adaptations. It’s lightweight and inconsequential – but it’s also a lot of fun. That could describe much of Leonard’s work on the page – and it’s a tone that the film gets just right.