Film Review: Life of Crime 

Life of Crime / B-

If there's a trick to successfully translating Elmore Leonard to the screen, only a handful of directors have figured it out. The ’90s ended a long run of failed cinematic adaptations with a trio of big personality directors (Barry Sonnenfeld, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh) finding just the right mix of tone, style, and storytelling to not only make “Dutch” proud, but also deliver some of the best comedies (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight) of the decade.

Writer-director Daniel Schechter is keenly aware that he has big shoes to fill, and in adapting the ’70s caper novel The Switch, he's had the good sense to stick close to Leonard's story, actually going so far as to cut and paste whole pages of the author's deft and funny dialog. As a result, there's the expected rogues gallery of eccentric characters who display an ever-shifting mix of honorable and dastardly behavior. Set in retro ’70s suburban Detroit, there's a kidnapping, blackmail, and all-round sociopathic scheming. Everyone's brilliant plan is derailed by greed and stupidity, and the whole sleazy situation is flavored with pointed jokes about race and class. In other words, it's vintage Leonard.

Salt-and-pepper low-rent crime duo Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey … aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) hatch a plan to kidnap the trophy wife (a well-coifed Jennifer Aniston as Mickey) of corrupt real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) and stash her with a pervy white supremacist (Mark Boone Junior) until their million-dollar score comes in. Unfortunately, their rickety plan goes awry when the ransomers discover that Frank has just served his wife divorce papers in order to run off with his conniving mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher). Further complicating things is Mickey's neighbor Marshall (Will Forte), who shows up during the kidnapping with martinis in hand and sex on his mind.

Schechter, working with what is clearly a modest budget, has brought in an interesting and talented cast, with Hawkes and Aniston finding an offbeat chemistry as potential lovers, Fisher gleefully embracing Melanie's manipulative amorality, and Bey playing the dapper Laurel to Hawkes' Hardy. You may recall these lowlifes from Jackie Brown, played memorably by Bridget Fonda, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert De Niro. Life of Crime's trio doesn't come close to dispelling Tarantino's creations, but they do manage to find their own likable groove.

Too bad the same can't be said of Schecter's direction. While he does an admirable job of understating the humor, keeping things loose, and selling Leonard's more grotesque scenarios, there's no discernible personality or panache to his approach. His adaptation feels more cautiously reverent than inspired, denying Life of Crime of snap, style, and, most importantly, a sense of danger. For all the humor one finds in Leonard's tales of lawless shenanigans, there is always the threat of death or ruin hanging over the characters. Here, not so much. At best, Life of Crime achieves the peril of inconvenience.

Worse, Schecter makes too little of Leonard's best twist (the real “switch,” if you will): the way the women in his story — ditzy Melanie and sheltered Mickey — start calling the shots, while the men, with their grandiose yet ill-conceived schemes, struggle to keep up. A director who saw those beats and knew how to hit them just right might have found himself being mentioned with the best of Leonard's screen adaptors rather than just the guy who did a respectable, yet unspectacular job.

Life of Crime is playing at the Birmingham 8. It's rated R and has a running time of 98 minutes.

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