Written by Husam Jayyusi
What To Expect
Anyone with a deep admiration for crime legend Elmore Leonard may find some difficulty reviewing Life of Crime – adapted from Leonard’s novel The Switch – a sense of bias creeping up your spine. For this is the prequel to the wonderful adaptation of Rum Punch, which was Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The backbone for disappointment, thus, exists. Luckily enough, the cast and crew don’t give me an opportunity to wallow in disdain at a bad adaptation; on the contrary I left with a 7-year-old’s grin on my face.
The one downside that unfortunately enamors Hollywood at the moment is that ‘Everything has been done’. The premise of Life of Crime, therefore is not original; it can be easily argued that the plot-line has been sold wholesale from 1986’s Ruthless People. Still, don’t hold that against it.
This is a film that recreates the 70s in a convincing fashion, with characters that have used Jackie Brown as a stepping-stone rather than a hindrance. Call it the poor man’s American Hustle.
What’s it About?
Featuring many of the same characters from Tarantino’s adaptation, it’s fun to compare and contrast recurring characters, but in order to fully appreciate Life of Crime, it must be viewed as a standalone film.
In simple terms and at the risk of giving something away, the film tracks Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, a. k. a. Mos Def, playing Samuel L. Jackson’s role) and Louis Gara (played by the brilliant character actor John Hawkes, subbing for Robert De Niro) in their Detroit years. They hatch a plan to kidnap the wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston; Marley & Me), of a real estate developer, Frank (Tim Robbins), who’s planning to leave her for mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher; Now You See Me, formerly played by Bridget Fonda), the kicker as the plot thickens is whether his wife’s kidnap is actually a positive for Frank.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
A considerable amount of good, a smidgeon of bad and a minuscule hint of ugly.
The beauty of Leonard’s characters is their belief in their own intelligence, which is often quite minimal. Watching the characters evolve into their roles is quite an absorbing experience. Director Daniel Schechter received a personal approval from Leonard prior to filming and his eventual death, and it is a blessing as Leonard’s fingerprints smudge the production in the best of ways. It also helps that Crime features an ensemble cast delivering low-key yet impressive performances (Aniston’s being her career best), especially when dealing with characters that tread the border between humor and chaos. While it lacks the traditional Leonardesque slick from films such as Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and the pacing is considerably slower than any previous releases, Life of Crime is engaging, authentic and stays true to the spirit of Elmore.
To Perform or Not to Perform
The big surprise here is Aniston who seamlessly blends into the ensemble. Her performance is measured yet subtle, generating emotion without tumbling into her typical cute, rom-commy characteristics. John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is as reliable as ever, while Mos Def (The Italian Job) delivers a more constrained yet faithful interpretation of the role made famous by Samuel L. Jackson. Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) does well with a role that seems more suited to him about 20 years ago, while the cast is rounded up by confident turns from Will Forte (Nebraska), Isla Fisher (isn’t Melanie a blonde?) and Mark Boone Junior (television’s Sons of Anarchy).
The enjoyable twists and turns of the script, the thin line instances of balancing humor and consistent tension, help the cast bring this small-scale thriller to the loyal adaptation it intends to be.
On a grander scale Crime is certainly lower on the scale of Leonard adaptations, especially when it comes up against films of masterful quality such as Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, but it blends the author’s cocktail-like mixture of comedy, character and crime with considerable success. Schecter extracts a career best performance from Jennifer Aniston, who is surrounded by a more than capable supporting act. The authenticity of the period is spot on, and Leonard’s work translates beautifully when heart is in it.
In a somber tribute at the end, the credits read ‘For Elmore’. It’s safe to say the master would have been proud.
Star Rating: 4 / 5