John Hawkes, left, and Jennifer Aniston in a scene from "Life of Crime."
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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 works have 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.
Written and directed by Daniel Schechter, based on the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch. A Roadside Attractions release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence. Running time: 100 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ***
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, Mos Def, John Hawkes, Isla Fisher.
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 Nazi memorabilia.
“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 amusing hoodlum.
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 Schechter, the promising early scenes lead us straight down the road to a mere misdemeanor.