As we’ve recently seen, adaptations can be a tricky proposition. One author whose work tends to hold up well to the transfer from page to screen, however, is the late Elmore Leonard. His list of hits is long (Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (aka Rum Punch), 3:10 to Yuma (both versions), TV’s Justified), and his misses are few and far between (Be Cool of course comes to mind – one great monologue by The Rock does not make a movie). Perhaps it is because Leonard wrote such, well the word isn’t “sympathetic,” but maybe “interesting criminals. His antagonists – who often serve as his main characters – are very real in their quirks and insecurities. So they translate easily. Daniel Schechter is the latest writer/director to take on Leonard’s material in his new film, Life of Crime.
Based on The Switch (which would have been the only title worse than “Life of Crime” that the filmmakers could have chosen), the movie stars John Hawkes and Mos Def (or yasiin bey – the lowercase is apparently intentional) as Louis and Ordell, a couple of small time crooks looking to make a huge score off of a corrupt businessman (Tim Robbins) by kidnapping his wife (Jennifer Aniston). Life of Crime also features memorable supporting turns from Isla Fisher, Will Forte, and Mark Boone Jr.
The majority of the movie follows the kidnapping. Like any Lenoard story, the job goes bad, and the duo are forced to improvise. But the ransom demand may be in jeopardy from the very start. These twists and turns are intriguing (though they are also rather rote at this point), but it takes a long time for the script to get there. I was very concerned at first that Schechter didn’t have a feel for Leonard’s voice. Leonard’s characters are very funny, often in their ineptitude, and none of that is present until the kidnapping has already been underway for some time. When it does kick in though, those personalities carry the Life of Crime to its satisfying conclusion.
As the movie begins moving that way, you may realize that Hawkes and bey are playing younger versions of the Robert De Niro and Sameul L. Jackson characters from Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The movie takes place in 1978, so the logistics work out, though it wouldn’t really matter if they didn’t; Life of Crime isn’t really a prequel to the other movie, and that is evident in Hawkes’s distinct performance (though now I can’t not see a certain amount of physical resemblance between Hawkes and De Niro).
bey hedges a little more toward the pre-established depiction of Ordell, but who can say whether he’s leaning on Jackson’s performance or Leonard’s source material. Regardless, he does a very good job in the role. This kind of character is where Mos Def shines. He can be flat is his more grounded roles, like those in Begin Again or Be Kind Rewind, but when he has less common traits to play off of, he really shines. Similarly, Boone and Forte are extremely solid is their roles as the third member of the team and a potential paramour for Aniston’s Mickey, respectively.
Stylistically, Schechter does make some interesting choices. He is clearly attempting to evoke late 70’s film of the pulpier variety. From the score to the rear projection to the title card at the beginning, Life of Crime is trying to imitate its inspirations, but Schechter isn’t consistent with this endeavor. There are a lot of things he and cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards could have done with the camera to remind us of that bygone era. Instead the angles and shots are very standard, though functional.
If Life of Crime had committed to its tone just a little harder, some of the out-of-place lines and contrivances would have been a lot less jarring. Life of Crime is not a bad movie, but it does stand in its own way at times, especially when it comes to momentum. I recommend it to any Leonard fans, but it will probably go down as more of a deep cut to the casual Elmore-ians. Rewatch Jackie Brown instead, then see Life of Crime if you have time.