LIFE OF CRIME * *
Starring Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey, Isla Fisher and Tim Robbins. Written for the screen and directed by Daniel Schechter.
The novels of Elmore Leonard –with their tersely funny descriptions, curlicue caper plots and crackling dialogue– naturally project themselves so vividly in the reader’s imagination that when you finish one of them it often feels like you’ve seen the movie version already.
In fact, Leonard’s books read so much like screenplays I can imagine how it would be tempting for a filmmaker to just shoot what’s on the page and try to keep out of the master’s way. This might explain why there are so many lousy Elmore Leonard adaptations, or at least it’s the best theory I can come up with as to why Life of Crime feels so draggy and inert.
Directed by Daniel Schechter, the film is based on Leonard’s The Switch — a 216-page quickie from 1978 that’s hardly a classic but had a catchy hook and a killer ending. The book’s main claim to fame in the Elmore canon is his introduction of bumbling criminals Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara – older, sadder and more dangerous versions of whom the author returned to fourteen years later in Rum Punch. But you probably know them better as Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown.
This puts Life of Crime in the not-exactly-enviable position of serving as a belated prequel to one of the best films of the 1990’s. My favorite Tarantino movie, Jackie Brown infused Leonard’s tale of middle-aged melancholy with the filmmaker’s ardent Pam Grier worship and blaxploitation nostalgia, while both authors’ affinity for long, loping dialogue scenes melded to a point where it was tough to tell which lines Quentin had written and which ones came verbatim from Rum Punch. It was a wonderful convergence of simpatico sensibilities and still, by far, the warmest, most human picture Quentin Tarantino has ever made.
Life of Crime is more like an audiobook, beginning with the younger, less menacing Ordell (Yasiin Bey, who used to be called Mos Def) talking a younger, less addled Louis (John Hawkes) into a kidnapping scheme that doesn’t sound particularly well thought-out. Of course Leonard characters talk each other into doing stupid shit all the time –it’s one of the great pleasures of his writing– but something feels a few beats off here. Schechter’s staging is so flat the dialogue never pops. You hear the words but not the music.
Ordell’s harebrained scheme involves abducting Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the aging trophy wife of a crooked, drunken slumlord played by Tim Robbins at his buffoonish worst. Hubby’s got over a million dollars in ill-gotten gains stashed away in an offshore account, so it’s not like he can go to the cops about it. Problem is, once they’ve grabbed her, our guys find out that he’s just filed for divorce – so basically they’ve just done the dude a favor and if they kill her as threatened, it’ll end up saving him a hundred grand a month in alimony.
If the premise of a piggish husband putting off the return of his kidnapped wife rings a bell, it’s worth noting that the surprise success of Ruthless People scuttled a planned adaptation of The Switch back in the 1980’s. So for those of you keeping score at home, that makes two great movies in the shadows of which this flimsy thing flounders.
Schechter’s attempts to establish the late-seventies milieu are the film’s biggest embarrassments. A retro-font title card complete with Roman numeral copyright date (a sight gag lifted outright from Jackie Brown) and occasional old-timey zooms clash horribly with the overlit, super-sharp and terribly modern digital photography. Shot in scope for no apparent reason, Life of Crime is a visually ghastly picture that spends its first forty minutes or so pointing and giggling at all the most outrageously garish fashions of the day before eventually it gets tired of looking like Anchorman and settles down enough to let these characters dress like actual human beings.
But Jennifer Aniston almost saves the movie, which are seven words I never, ever thought I would find myself typing. In a largely silent, reactive role (sometimes even wearing a ski mask with the eye-slits duct-taped shut) she smartly uses subtle physicality to convey Mickey’s sense of abandonment as everybody involved slowly realizes her husband’s never going to pay the ransom. Then she gets crafty.
I’ve never seen Aniston so accessible and alive like this on the big screen, absent all her nose-scrunching sitcom tics and bored glamour gal disdain. She even sparks some real chemistry with John Hawkes, and Jennifer Aniston never has chemistry with anybody.
Hawkes is kinda hunky in this, a charming but incongruous reading of the character that’s impossible to square with De Niro’s deadly space cadet. It’s even tougher to picture Isla Fisher’s one-note shrew turning into Bridget Fonda’s scheming surfer girl gone to seed. I suppose on some level it is unfair of me to compare these performances to their iconic counterparts, but since Schechter brings no angle or interpretation of his own to the table it’s hard not to default to the classic. (His incessant close-ups on Aniston’s bare feet would also seem to indicate a cheeky Tarantino homage.)
Not even a filmmaker this asleep at the wheel can louse up Leonard’s big finish though, the gist of which I won’t reveal save to say that it sums up an existential problem that plagues Life of Crime. It ends just when it starts getting good, and the best is yet to come.