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Life of Crime, the latest big-screen adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story, is more magic trick than caper—each flavorless scene disappears from your memory nearly as soon as the next plot point is introduced.
Written and directed by relative unknown Daniel Schechter, Life of Crime nevertheless has a pedigreed sheen not only because of its A-list cast (Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey, Jennifer Aniston) and source material (Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch), but also from closing the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. Its dregs-of-August release, however, is a truer heads-up that this crime/comedy hybrid is more Be Cool than Jackie Brown.
The sense that everyone approached the film with a shrug is evident from its opening. After learning that the setting is 1978 Detroit, we’re dropped into the tail end of a conversation between Ordell (Bey, better known as Mos Def) and Louis (Hawkes), who are planning on kidnapping the wife of an ill-defined capitalist bad guy, Frank (Robbins), and holding her for a $1 million ransom. Whom the thugs are and why they’re targeting Frank are details for which you’ll have to consult the book.
Frank, however, has tired of the missus, the gleamingly blond Mickey (Aniston). He’s actually planning on divorcing her. Mickey isn’t too enchanted with her hard-drinking husband, either. So when Ordell and Louis nab her—with the help of a racist, gun-loving Nazi (Mark Boone Junior)—well, maybe it’s not quite the crisis the kidnappers were expecting.
Yes, it’s all very Ruthless People, and plans to adapt Leonard’s novel in the late ’70s were shelved because of the plot similarities. (For the record, though, the book was first.) But Life of Crime also feels like a retread of just about every movie in the felons-are-funny genre, and its lack of pop, from the dialogue to the characters to the story itself, makes it a watch-checker. Green script mistakes such as having characters disappear for long stretches of time—a big one being Mickey and Frank’s son—only make it more frustrating.
The cast isn’t to blame, though. It’s refreshing to see Aniston play an astute grownup instead of rom-com dope; Bey oozes charm with every line. And Hawkes has the gift of the most multidimensional role here. Both a felon and a gentleman, Louis’ continual morality checks and manners crucially allow the viewer to like somebody. Will Forte also has a minor role as a guy who carries a torch for Mickey, but his character is similar to the others—poorly defined, and dispensable when weaving him in might be too tricky.
Life of Crime may not be completely devoid of laughs, but Schechter’s attempt to milk them from, say, people getting hit by cars (it happens more than once) proves tone-deaf. The highlight is its ending, and not just because it means you can leave: A clever and perfectly brief twist provides one of the few instances of good comic timing. And it doesn’t involve a body rolling off someone’s bumper.
Life of Crime opens Aug. 29 at West End Cinema.