LIFE OF CRIME – The Review
A little over a year ago, the entertainment world mourned the passing of prolific author Elmore Leonard, a writer well-known in both literature and motion picture circles. His earliest works were in the Western genre and beginning in the late 1950’s many were filmed (his short story 3:10 TO YUMA was made twice!). In the next decade Leonard switched genres and soon became known as one of the great creators of gritty crime thrillers. And Hollywood scooped these up for the screen, perhaps more so than the “oaters”. In the 90’s many celebrated young directors discovered his work and several critical (if not always box office) hits were released. 1998 saw Steven Soderbergh’s take on OUT OF SIGHT following Quentin Tarantino’s spin on “Rum Punch” titled JACKIE BROWN the previous year. Both films even shared a Leonard character, Michael Keaton as ATF agent Ray Nicholette. This weekend sees a new adaptation of Leonard’s story “The Switch” featuring the criminal gang from JB. And it’s a prequel, set way, way back in 1978 (“Rum” was set in 1992 while JB was contemporary). Plus it’s not the crew that QT assembled: Samuel L Jackson as Ordell, Robert DeNiro as Louis, and Bridget Fonda as Melanie. For this earlier job, director/screenwriter Daniel Schechter brings together a new trio embarking on a LIFE OF CRME.
Small time Detroit crooks Ordell Robbie (Yaslin Bey AKA rapper/poet Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) somehow get wind of the secret bank account of crooked real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). How can they get their mitts on that dough? Why, they’ll kidnap his wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston). When Frank’s out of town with their teenage son, the boys will snatch her and keep her at the home of their weapons dealer (and collector of WWII artifacts) pal, Richard Monk (Mark Boone, Junior). But things get complicated. Frank sends his son off to relatives, while he shacks up at the Bahamas condo of his mistress Melanie Ralston (Isla Fisher). Once Ordell and Louis contact Frank to demand a million bucks ransom, they realize that he doesn’t really care about getting his missus back. How can they put the squeeze on Frank and avoid the cops? And what happens when Louis develops sympathy for the lonely Mrs. D?
The film’s main draw in the poster and trailers is Aniston as the neglected society wife. Unfortunately the role is so underwritten that she never gets a chance to flex her considerable comedic skills (or her dramatic ones for that matter). In her initial scenes, Mickey is in full victim mode. Sure,she’s got a great place, but much of her time is spent cowering from her spiteful spouse. Soon, she’s terrified by her captors, but somehow finds the ordeal liberating, eventually regaining her voice and speaking her mind until an absurd come-around before the final fade-out. Most of her better moments are shared with Hawkes who is able to bring some dignity to his role. His Louis may be the brains of the operation as opposed to the dimwit played by DeNiro in JACKIE. He’s determined and scrappy, unafraid to stand up to goons twice his size, even clashing with his partner Ordell. The two usually have a nice, easy rapport although often Bey plays Ordell too laid back, losing some of the tension in certain scenes that need some extra energy. It also diffuses some of the sexual chemistry that should spark between him and Fisher’s Melanie. She brings a nice sexy pixie quality to the feisty gold digger that could’ve been the standard kept bimbo. This gives the scenes of her dismissing the telephone ransom demands an extra punch. It’s tough to get what her character sees in the loathsome Frank (besides the financial stuff, of course). Robbins plays him as an irredeemable, obnoxious bully who almost telegraphs his evil intentions with smirks and eye rolls. This buffoon doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge for the Oscar-winner. Also unchallenged is the talented Will Forte saddled with the role of a hangdog, married friend of Frank eager for an affair with Mickey. After his superb work in NEBRASKA last year, this doofus is a definite step back. It’s still a step up from the repugnant, gun-loving bigot played by Boone. The fact that Ordell and Gara can work with this neo-Nazi cartoon is too much of a stretch.
Director/screenwriter never maintains a consistent rhythm to the story which wants to be a wacky hi-jinks caper farce. Ordell and Louis Gara are never the lovable lowlifes that the film wishes us to embrace (look at them in those funny rubber Halloween masks, aren’t they adorable?). This flick just reminds us of how superior their 1997 debut from Tarantino was. And for funny foul-up comedy kidnappings it pales before FARGO and the very similar RUTHLESS PEOPLE from 1986 which had the energy and tone this new entry in the “I don’t want her, you can keep her” sub-genre of crime comedies sorely lacks. Plus the often sudden brutal violence and gore subvert many gags. Perhaps the decision to set the film in 1978 was an attempt to inject some kitsch nostalgia, but after last year’s masterful recreation of 1979 by David O Russell for AMERICAN HUSTLE, this feels half-hearted at best (and the hairstyles, make-up, and fashions foisted on Anniston seem too severe compared to Fisher). Oh, and once again, the smoking is way overdone (hey, the ads were banned from TV then, so people knew!) to the point of nausea. LIFE OF CRIME is a bland attempt at a stylized wacky low-rent romp. And the fact that it wastes such a talented cast in an unspired adaptation of the great Mr. Leonard, well that’s the real crime.
2 Out of 5
LIFE OF CRIME screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at the STL Cinemas at the Chase Park Plaza