When it comes to gritty crime comedies, there’s no such thing as a bad Elmore
Leonard adaptation. Not every film based on one of his books is a “Get Shorty,”
but even lesser Leonard has fascinating characters, hard-boiled dialogue and
criminal plans that never quite go the way we, or the crooks, expect them.
“Life of Crime” is lesser-Leonard, an all-star kidnapping comedy that manages
to “Be Cool” even if the filmmaker never quite finds the grim faced grins that
the best Elmore noirs boast.
Ordell (Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes) are two career crooks who learn of a
rich guy who is hiding his riches from the state, the Feds, his wife and
everybody else. It’s 1978, and Frank (Tim Robbins) does what people did back
then — he plays golf, pushes his son into tennis “at the club” and stashes his
cash in the Bahamas.
Ordell is the smart alecky brains of the outfit. Louis is game for any caper,
including one that has them kidnapping the rich guy’s wife, Mickey.
But Mickey is played by Jennifer Aniston, so we see one problem right there.
She’s stuck in a bad marriage to a bullying drunk whom their son hates as much
as she does. She’s gorgeous and she has a hint of cunning vulnerability about
her. Louis is smitten before they even stuff her in the truck.
Another possible wrinkle is their other accomplice. Richard, played by Mark
Boone Jr., sells guns out of a house decorated with swastikas and stuffed with
“Your dad was in the war, right?”
“Yeah. Tank gunner.”
“You, but which SIDE was he on?”
Richard is an anti-Semite, a loner whose wife just left him and the guy who
boards up the windows in his house so they can stash the victim until they talk
Frank out of the money. Bad idea.
Another complication crops up the day Frank leaves town for “a meeting.” He’s
actually jetting over to the Bahamas, meeting his mistress, Melanie (Isla
Fisher). Maybe he doesn’t WANT the wife.
And then there’s the guy who does want Mickey. Marshall interrupts the
kidnapping, thinking he can con Mickey into an assignation. He’s played by Will
Forte, so naturally the kidnappers gamble that this wuss won’t call the cops,
even if he sees what they’re up to before they knock him in the head.
The tale has a few nice twists and turns, allegiances shift and scheming
ensues. Aniston nicely suggests the sort of victim who might, after the shock
wears off, assert herself with the one kidnapper under her spell.
Mainly, though, “Life of Crime” is a blown opportunity. The double-crosses
rarely reach the level of delight, and Robbins and Mos Def play their guys a
little too close to the vest. Ordell’s quiet cunning hides a wicked sense of
humor. He messes with racist Richard’s head, but it’s the only time he’s ever an
Nobody here is drawn or played as broadly as Leonard makes his most
unforgettable characters, and that robs the comedy of its kick. Those laughs are
necessary, because the tale threatens to turn ultra dark.
“Life of Crime” was never going to be another “Get Shorty,” but it might have
managed a “Rum Punch.” In the hands of green director Daniel Schecter, the
promising early scenes lead us straight down the road to a mere misdemeanor.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and violence
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, Mos Def, John Hawkes, Isla Fisher
Credits: Written and directed by Daniel Schecter, based on an Elmore Leonard
novel. A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:40