[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Life of Crime opens today in limited release.]
I’ve never read any of Elmore Leonard’s novels, and yes, I’m ashamed. But I know from the film adaptations of his crime novels that there’s a way to do them right and wrong. They have a confidence, a swagger, a sly wink, a braggadocio, and they’re smart. They have the talk for the walk, and some directors, most notably Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (based off Leonard’s Rum Punch) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, are smart enough to bring that confidence to the screen. Those films make the uninitiated feel embarrassed that they haven’t joined the club. Even with Daniel Schechter’s cautious adaptation of Life of Crime (based on the novel The Switch) the audience can hear the author’s voice. Schechter’s direction is serviceable enough to not get in the way, he wisely trust his strong cast, accents the comedy, and lets Leonard do the talking.
Set in Detroit in 1978, Ordell Robbie (yasiin bey) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) have a perfectly-laid plan for kidnapping trophy wife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), and getting a million-dollar ransom from her husband Frank (Tim Robbins). Like all best-laid kidnapping plans in movies, this one goes to hell from the word “go” despite the impressive amount of planning on the part of Ordell and Louis. It turns out that family friend Marshall Taylor (Will Forte) has a doomed crush on Mickey; Frank is having an affair with the scheming Melanie Ralston (Isla Fisher); and Ordell and Louis’ partner Richard (Mark Boone Junior) is a pervert and a neo-Nazi. These complicating human factors force all the players to consider just how far they’re willing to go to get what they want.
The structure of a large group of characters all going after different goals and crashing into each other in the process should be recognizable to people who are passingly familiar with previous adaptations of Leonard’s work. Life of Crime is a prequel to Rum Punch (Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro played Ordell and Louis, respectively), and the same kind of ensemble dynamic can be seen in Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Be Cool, and The Big Bounce to name a few. What’s clear from these adaptations is that they’re working from quality material. The challenge is in the execution.
For Schechter’s part, Life of Crime feels like a respectful adaptation. The elements shine through without embellishment, and that’s the best and worst aspect of the movie. I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I can spot when a director is being precious with the material and Schechter doesn’t provide much style even though Leonard was acclaimed for the unique tone he brought to his novels. As editor-in-chief Steve Weintraub pointed out to me after we saw the screening, Schechter doesn’t even try to make Life of Crime look like it was shot on film despite the film’s setting. There are some nice music choices, but they feel standard rather than part of a unique vision.
While Schechter doesn’t try to leave his stamp on the material, he still brings solid pacing, good comic timing, and a fair amount of suspense. He has a huge boon in his excellent cast, especially bey and Hawkes. It’s a relief to see kidnappers who may not be hardened professionals, but they’re not dummies either. Their plan is audacious, but when it starts unraveling, bey and Hawkes have the wherewithal to play into the humor without become caricatures. The two actors play off each other wonderfully, and make Ordell and Louis frustrated but never flustered.
Even if you’re like me and have yet to read any of Leonard’s books, his style is too distinct to miss even if some filmmakers have desperately missed the mark. Life of Crime is a straight shot, but it’s muffled, and unless you’re adapting Poirot, there’s no reason to be so delicate and dainty. The adaptation may not be living to the fullest, but it’s got enough to let you know it’s kicking.