Not having read Switch, the Elmore Leonard novel on which Life of Crime is based, I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but as a film it’s in the same conversation with Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty. While Daniel Schechter’s direction is generally not as lush as Messers Soderbergh and Sonnenfeld, that’s due at least in part to the time and setting (winter in 1970s Detroit vs. modern day Miami and Los Angeles, respectively). Glitzy and glamorous, Detroit ain’t, although the Bahamas scenes lighten up, considerably.
Lest you go into Life of Crime expecting anything like either of those two previous films, know first that it is significantly less funny (intentionally so) than either Out of Sight or Get Shorty. This film plays more like certain Coen Brothers films in terms of tone, with moments of dark and oddball comedy interspersed with passages of drama (occasionally brutal). Schechter’s hand is reasonably deft and assured, though far more muted in tone and palate, which pairs well with the darker, yet slightly absurd situations.
Frank and Mickey Dawson are a less-than-happily married couple in suburban Detroit. Frank (Tim Robbins) is an older, hard-drinking (and driving) real estate developer who’s basically every nightmare you’ve ever had about 1970s era male chauvinists. You know, the kind of guys who smack waitresses on the rear and refer to their wives as trophies in public and are far worse in private.
Mickey (Jennifer Anison), on the other hand, is as miserable as can be expected. She’s on the far side of 40, having given her youth to her ape of a husband, and her life is clearly not what she’d hoped. She clearly cares for their son, Bo (Charlie Tahan in his second release of the month, following Love is Strange), but the drunken, angry, abusive Frank overshadows everything.
Enter Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (yasiin bey, née Mos Def), a pair of two-bit criminals who hatch a plot to kidnap Mickey. It turns out that Frank has been embezzling money through various schemes to the tune of $50,000 per month and secreting it away in a Bahamian bank. Louis and Ordell reasonably assume that if they grab Mickey, Frank will part with the million dollars they estimate that he’s got squirreled away.
The criminals are less than experts at this sort of business, and on the day of the planned grab, one thing after another goes wrong, including the unscheduled appearance of Marshall (Will Forte) a friend of Frank’s who happens to have a big crush on Mickey. As luck would have it, he decides to invite himself in to Mickey’s house, thus interrupting the deed.
After knocking out Marshall and locking him in Mickey’s closet, the pair hightail it back to the house of their third partner, Richard (Mark Boone Junior), where they’ve decided to stash Mickey while they receive the ransom payment. Why exactly they have to use Richard’s house is not explained, but it’s likely due to it being relatively remote. Regardless, it’s an unfortunate choice since Richard is bat-shit crazy. His house is festooned with Nazi flags and weapons, and his speech is peppered with choice words for Jews, Blacks, and anyone else he hates (read: pretty much everyone). He’s also a pervert, making his house the absolute worst place to stash an attractive female kidnapping victim, unless you enjoy complications.
To add to this less-than-rock-solid plan there’s another major monkey wrench in the works … Frank doesn’t really want his wife back. He’s filed for divorce and is basically willing to call their bluff. And so is Frank’s mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher), who is angling to be the next Mrs. Frank Dawson. So it seems that Louis, Ordell, and the progressively unhinged Richard are stuck with Mickey unless they can somehow convince Frank that his real estate shenanigans will be revealed.
Daniel Schechter is not (yet?) a filmmaker on the level of Soderbergh or Sonnenfeld, and the material, while similar in certain ways, does not lend itself to the modern noir panache that infused Get Shorty and Out of Sight, so any comparisons, while inevitable, are also generally unfair. It’s less funny and significantly more straight-forward in plot, first of all. It’s also very much a smaller film and is not loaded with a passel of quirky characters that helped make those previous Leonard adaptations so fun.
That said, this cast is pretty much note perfect. Hawkes and bey are rock solid as career bush league criminals desperate for the big score. Hawkes’ Louis clearly doesn’t have the heart for the business, which is probably why he’s not a particularly successful thug, while bey has more than a hint of menace about him, evident from the first frames of the picture. He’s cool and level-headed and even willing to endure Richard’s consistent racist rants.
Aniston again proves that given the right material, she’s an accomplished actor, and if she would just eschew the under-written, terrible two-hander rom coms, she’d more consistently turn out solid work. Mark Boone Junior is picture-perfect as the rapidly devolving Richard.
The one major failing of Life of Crime is that it takes quite a while to get going. It’s not that the first act isn’t engaging, it’s just that it’s a long build up to a rather straight-forward premise. If you’re hoping for the double-crossing and twists to start mounting in the first hour, you’re going to be disappointed. They arrive, but much of the “who has the upper hand” back and forth that we love from previous Leonard adaptations is missing from the first two acts.
Director: Daniel Schechter
Writer: Daniel Schechter (screenplay); Elmore Leonard (novel The Switch)
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def (as Yasiin Bey), Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes
Release Date: Aug. 29, 2014 (limited)