Review: Life of Crime (TIFF 2013)
PLOT: Two small-time crooks, Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) come up with what they think is the perfect scheme. They kidnap Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the trophy wife of tycoon Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), with the goal of extorting him for a million dollars he has hidden in a secret slush fund. As the money is all ill-gotten gains, he can’t call the cops. What they don’t count on is that Frank- who’s got a mistress (Isla Fisher) on the side- doesn’t want her back.
REVIEW: I wish I could say that LIFE OF CRIME, based on one of Elmore Leonard’s most beloved books, “The Switch” is one of the great big-screen adaptations of his work, especially with him having passed away last month (the film will apparently be released in the States as THE SWITCH). As it is, LIFE OF CRIME is perfectly serviceable, but to be honest, in the last few years the Leonard adaptation bar has been set incredibly high. Each week on FX, we can watch Leonard being done brilliantly on JUSTIFIED. LIFE OF CRIME seems faithful, if uninspired.
The most intriguing thing about LIFE OF CRIME is that it serves as a kind of de-facto prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (which was based on Leonard’s “Rum Punch”). In that film, Robbie and Gara were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro. However, in LIFE OF CRIME they have relatively little in common with those guys. Mos Def plays Robbie as way less of a psychopath than Jackson, while Hawkes’ as the kindly, sensitive and clever Gara is nothing like De Niro’s zoned-out simpleton with a propensity for violence.
Given that it’s a faithful adaptation, Leonard’s story still works. “The Switch” was the inspiration for the eighties comedy RUTHLESS PEOPLE, although other than the premise virtually nothing was used. Aniston is actually good as the slightly past-her-prime trophy wife, who’s sick of her abusive boorish husband, played as a real jerk by Robbins. Isla Fisher steals the show as his trashy mistress with an agenda of her own, and they all toss off Leonard’s signature dialogue with aplomb.
However, LIFE OF CRIME still lacks any kind of big-screen polish to justify adapting Leonard in the first place. The best adaptations of his work (OUT OF SIGHT, GET SHORTY, 52 PICK-UP) all benefit from strong directors who incorporate a lot of their own style into the adaptation. Director Daniel Schechter gives this the style of a TV movie, with even the 1970’s period setting feeling cartoonish rather than authentic. The only element of the film that shows any kind of real flair is the soundtrack by The Newton Brothers.
Still, it’s not a bad film per se. If you’re a hardcore Leonard devotee, you might enjoy it, especially if this is a book you’ve always wanted to see adapted. Mos Def and John Hawkes both have fun in the leads, and Hawkes especially seems to be having a ball breaking from his usual de-facto sad sack typecasting to play the “in-control” Gara, who’s tough to fool, and keeps his more devious partner, Robbie, on his toes. Again though- don’t think of this as an all-out JACKIE BROWN prequel. Other than the names, these don’t seem to be the same two guys.
Overall, LIFE OF CRIME was an OK movie. It’s not one of the really good Leonard adaptations, but then again, it doesn’t join PRONTO or TOUCH as one of the really bad ones either. It’s probably worth seeing for the writer’s hardcore fans, but everyone else might as well just read the book instead.