Life of Crime (2014) / Thriller-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for language, some sexual content and violence
Running Time: 98 min.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Mark Boone Junior, Will Forte, Isla Fisher, Clea Lewis, Kevin Corrigan
Director: Daniel Schechter
Screenplay: Daniel Schechter (based on the Elmore Leonard novel, "The Switch")
Review published September 1, 2014

The works of Elmore Leonard have produced motion picture gold many times before, most notably in critically acclaimed 1990s thrillers like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Jackie Brown.  There are a handful of other attempts that haven't panned out as well, which leads one to believe that the quality of the movie will largely depend on the quality of the director, as suspenseful thrillers, especially ones that must tread the line between comedy and violence, are a director's genre through and through.

Life of Crime, an adaptation of Leonard's 1978 novel, "The Switch", is written and directed by Daniel Schechter, who hasn't yet shown visionary tendencies in his prior experience in indie films, and doesn't seem quite up to the task.  Perhaps it's too much to chew on for someone who isn't a master of cinema, as the talky Leonard dialogue is something that has tripped up better talents, and the fact that 1986's Ruthless People features a strikingly similar plot, makes this feel like a lesser effort all around.  Coincidentally, Ruthless People killed the first attempt at adapting this novel, as it was originally planned to star Madonna for a 1987 release.

If you're a Jackie Brown fan, you will also find some familiarity in these characters.  It's not a coincidence; Jackie Brown is an adaptation of "Rum Punch", which is a sequel to "The Switch", so they do share some characters. Ordell Robbie (Bey, Begin Again) and Lewis Gara (Hawkes, Lincoln) are two of them, and here they appear as fledgling two-bit criminals out to make one big score of a million dollars by kidnapping for ransom Mickey (Aniston, We're the Millers), the wife of a big-time Detroit businessman named Frank Dawson (Robbins, Thanks for Sharing).  However, there is a big snag in their plans, as they didn't know that Frank has filed for a divorce from his wife, and wants her out of the way so he can marry his new main squeeze, Melanie (Fisher, Now You See Me).  Tension among the kidnappers begins to escalate as they heatedly talk about what to do about Mickey to ensure they won't get caught.

The cast of Life of Crime is the best thing about it, but mostly because of star power and not because we're seeing any of the actors deliver their finest performances.  John Hawkes probably comes out the best of the bunch, as his character is the most conflicted about what he is doing, especially as he begins to have sympathy, and perhaps even romantic feelings, for the woman he may have to kill if Frank doesn't follow through.  Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) has his comedic appeal, but his tendency to mumble in a non-emotive style makes it sometimes difficult to tell what he's saying clearly, which, in a somewhat talky Elmore Leonard adaptation that requires sharp dialogue and clever turns, is an impediment of significance.

The rest of the actors feel a bit wasted.  Aniston is subdued and feels out of place, while Robbins clearly isn't bringing his A-game anymore to smaller projects.  Isla Fisher is spunky enough in a mostly comic relief role, but perhaps she's not conniving enough to really make her performance as subtle in her duplicity as it should be. Will Forte (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) just can't act when he's not doing an obviously over-the-top comedic character; it's time for him to study his craft or just stick to eccentric oddballs, as he's a definite deficit whenever he's on the screen.

The production specs are an issue, as the hair, especially for the women, looks fake.  The film is set in the late 1970s, at the time that the book had been published, but there's a modern feel to the way the characters interact, especially in dialogue, that undercuts the clothing and vehicles we see around them.  The lighting also feels oversaturated for the kind of gritty comic thriller it is.  There's a Coen Brothers vibe to the film, but it lacks their keen ear for dialogue and unique character touches, and suffers from any other comparisons.  The hip 1970s soundtrack is perhaps the only asset as far as its setting goes, but the entire production pales in comparison to the recently released American Hustle, yet another case of Life of Crime falling short of a bigger, better, more well-defined genre exploration.

Seeing a familiar premise done in an average way in a genre in which we've seen the likes of Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Sonnenfeld, Life of Crime can only underwhelm.  It's an antiquated story that can't seem to find the right hook to carry it, leading to uneven scenes and spotty performances that keep us at arm's length from jumping into the plot for the wild ride.  In the realm of comedic kidnapping capers, Crime doesn't pay.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo