'Life of Crime'
Over the years, quite a few filmmakers have taken cracks at nailing Elmore Leonard adaptations on the big screen, but very few have been successful (three to be exact: ‘Get Shorty’, ‘Jackie Brown’ and ‘Out of Sight’). ‘Life of Crime’ is the latest attempt to make a proper Leonard movie, and the good news is that it works. The bad news is that it might not do much for viewers who can’t get into the author’s breezy rhythms, especially in a genre typically known for the bursts of high drama that he’s always careful to avoid.
The film stars Mos Def and John Hawkes as Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, names that should sound familiar to Elmore Leonard fans given that Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro played the same characters in ‘Jackie Brown’, making ‘Life of Crime’ a loose prequel. At the start of the story, they’re young buck ne’er do wells who decide to kidnap the rich wife (Jennifer Aniston) of a real estate sleazebag (Tim Robbins) for some sweet, sweet ransom cash. It seems like a simple plan that couldn’t possibly go wrong, until everything does.
First off, Aniston’s awkward suitor (Will Forte, who should be in every movie) shows up in the middle of the job, leaving an unexpected witness. Then the duo realize that their choosing a teddy bear Neo-Nazi as a partner (Mark Boon Junior) wasn’t the wisest choice. To top off the big messy kidnapping, Robbins ends up not wanting to pay because he was planning to divorce Aniston and hitch up with his side arm candy (Isla Fisher). So, in other words, nothing goes as planned in a series of sad and small ways.
If nothing else, ‘Life of Crime’ proves that Elmore Leonard adaptations can be as easy as transcribing the author’s dialogue into a screenplay and keeping the running time down to about 90 minutes. That’s pretty much what writer/director Daniel Schechter does here, and that’s not as big of a knock as it sounds. He does a wonderful job condensing the plot, has cast the movie exquisitely, and shoots the script competently without getting in the way of the story. It’s a solid piece of work. But by the time it’s over, it’s clear that what made ‘Jackie Brown’, ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘Out of Sight’ so special was the way their respective filmmakers slathered their own personalities all over the material while still being faithful to the source. Elmore Leonard stories are primarily about listless characters talking, so the spark of Quentin Tarantino’s gear-shift violence, Barry Sonnenfeld’s cracked visual stylization and Steven Soderbergh’s chronology-hopping were necessary elements to make those tales feel like movies. Schechter’s approach is a bit more flat and rambling. It’s still entertaining, just not particularly cinematic.
Fortunately, when taken on its own ragged terms, ‘Life of Crime’ can be a ton of fun. The story is hilarious and filled with unexpected twists. The cast is spectacular, with Hawkes and Mos Def pointing to the ‘Jackie Brown’ future while still making the broken-hearted roles their own. Robbins revels in his douchey sleaze. Fisher provides an amusing bimbo with a sinister brain. Boon practically steals the film as a sweetly deranged nutcase, and Forte mines more of the naturalistic loser laughs he brought to ‘Nebraska’. The only slight miscasting is Aniston, who’s fine on a scene-to-scene basis, but simply carries too much celebrity baggage and beauty to play a believable middle-class failure. (This was also the one minor flaw in ‘Office Space’.)
That the cast is so strong is important, because the film is really just about them trading naturalistic barbs, quips and double-crosses through beautifully constructed dialogue. If that single pleasure doesn’t appeal to you, ‘Life of Crime’ will be a bore, but Leonard fans should lap it up and beg for more.