A strangely off-kilter edit hinders an otherwise enjoyable film, but clever dialogue and pitch-perfect performances ensure Life Of Crime is worth your time.
Taking The Mickey by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Elmore Leonard once labelled the 1969 film adaptation of his first novel, The Big Bounce, “the second-worst movie ever made”. It wasn’t until the Owen Wilson remake of the same name in 2004 that Leonard was in a position to announce his ‘worst movie ever made’. With the exception of Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight, his dialogue-driven prose has been difficult to adapt in a manner that does justice to his status as one of America’s greatest crime writers. While it’s hindered by some off-kilter editing, Life Of Crime is an entertaining and worthy adaptation, with great performances and dialogue delivered with the zip and fervour of Leonard’s prose.
The year is 1978, and having befriended each other in jail, Ordell (Yasiin Bey) and Louis (John Hawkes) are small-time criminals who have a grand plan to kidnap the wife of a wealthy Detroit developer, Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). Oblivious to the existence of Frank’s mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher), once they successfully kidnap Frank’s wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), her husband has little desire to have her back. Scrambling to string together a plan B, the two hapless criminals engage in a battle of wits with Melanie and Frank in an effort to extort and and all money that they can.
In spite of its well-worn narrative, a wealth of clever visual comedy and sharp dialogue make Daniel Schechter’s film an entertaining homage to the heist movies of the 70’s. It shoots for the breezy charm of an Ocean’s 11, and for the most part, succeeds. The reality is that you’ve seen this kind of ‘bungled kidnap’ film before, but it’s Elmore Leonard’s sound source material and Schechter’s astute screenplay that set Life Of Crime apart from the cliché. Schechter is adept at eking strong performances out of his actors as well as having a knack for comedy. Highlighting an innate familiarity with the source material, he does an excellent job of adapting the charming vernacular for which Elmore Leonard was synonymous for. The rhythmic, crisp dialogue of Schecter’s script infuses the film with vibrancy and panache.
The clever screenplay builds upon Leonard’s laconic and provocative prose, and empowers the talented cast to really enjoy themselves with their characters. Even in what are arguably the two most underwritten roles, Tim Robbins and Will Forte excel as gormless husband and spineless would-be lover respectively. The casting of John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) is perfect – playing the same characters as Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown – exhibiting a warmth and familiarity with each other that’s endearing from the opening scene. It’s Jennifer Aniston’s Mickey and Isla Fisher’s Melanie however that capitalise on the razor-sharp repartee. Fisher is a revelation as the confident and astute Melanie, chewing up the scenery at every opportunity. Aniston on the other hand does comedy with the consummate ease of a seasoned pro, also adding an edge and pathos to a role that might otherwise be lost amongst the more colourful characters.
While the dialogue and performances remain strong throughout, the pacing and structure of the film feels noticeably disjointed; particularly in the second half of the film. The result of which is that a supremely confident opening act gives way to a more confusingly incoherent middle. Acting as writer and director, and film editor – Life Of Crime would have benefitted from a more objective and independent edit. While pace and tonality issues are commonplace when the rough cut moves to edit, this imbalance is generally diffused and finessed by the editor. Several later scenes in the film feel incomplete or half-baked, resulting in the sense that you’ve missed something. It may be that Schechter either gave himself too much footage to cut down, or not enough, which resulted in severely limiting him in the edit room. Editing issues extend to the sometimes misguided use of score and soundtrack, with a handful of cues feeling misplaced and incohesive with the tone of a scene.
A worthy quasi-prequel to Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Life Of Crime is fun and quirky with some memorable performances from an on-form cast. John Hawkes makes the most of a role that could have easily involved a slavish re-enactment of Robert DeNiro’s version of the character in Jackie Brown. The rest of the cast enjoy their characters to the utmost – most notably the fiendishly manipulative Isla Fisher – but it’s Jennifer Aniston’s performance that stands out in a way not seen since 2002’s The Good Girl. Her transformation from oppressed and silent housewife to combative tough nut feels slightly flimsy, but she effortlessly breezes through a range of emotions creating a funny, likeable and ultimately winning protagonist. Much like the bungled kidnapping, Life Of Crime doesn’t always go to plan, but when it comes to its satisfying close, you’ve really enjoyed yourself.
Life of Crime is released on 5th September 2014 in the UK