Elmore Leonard is not the easiest of authors to bring to the screen. For every Out of Sight or Jackie Brown, we get a The Big Bounce or Be Cool. Where does Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime, based on Leonard’s The Switch, rank? The John Hawkes and Jennifer Aniston crime flick belongs somewhere in the top half.
Hawkes is Louis Gara, a two-bit criminal who may have found himself the big score. He and his partner, Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey), have scoped out a rich property owner named Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) who has been illegally siphoning money from his Detroit area apartment buildings. Louis and Ordell feel that if they kidnap Frank’s wife Mickey (Aniston), there is no way Frank will go to the police because of all his illegal financial activities and surely he’ll pay whatever they ask (which is a cool million) to get her back.
What is clear from even the Life of Crime trailer is this is 1978 Detroit and for those familiar with Leonard’s work, Louis and Ordell will keep working together and eventually become Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown. But, this is back when they were not so refined -- cough, cough.
Robbins plays Frank as sleazy and unsympathetic as they come. And Aniston portrays Mickey as a typical '70s housewife who puts up with abuse from her husband because of the country club membership, the nice house and the lifestyle that will surely help raise her teenage son.
What’s fascinating is how Schechter uses the kidnapping of Mickey to show two things: Aniston’s character is finally free of the shackles of her life, even though she’s in new ones in a sense. And two, Robbins’ Frank wakes up and realizes that planning to divorce his wife and run off with his mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher) might not be the best idea. Those two elements will clash in the most emotionally explosive of ways.
Most of Leonard’s novels that hit the screen share a trait in that their criminals aren’t the brightest, but they are likable and somehow they manage to succeed, or at the least get away with it. Yes, some perish, but in Life of Crime, we truly do pull for Hawkes and Bey. And that largely has to do with how Schechter has lifted these characters from Leonard’s pages and brought them to life with actors in Hawkes and Bey who are at the top of their game.
There’s a subplot involving Will Forte as a married friend of the Dawson family who has a thing for Mickey. Forte, fresh off his Oscar nod for Nebraska, is outstanding again.
But, our Life of Crime review has to point out, this is the Aniston and Hawkes show. Hawkes, as always, is incredible. He is clearly one of the most talented actors working today (and one of our 19 actors who should be bigger movie stars). Aniston, meanwhile, wears the '70s well and her journey from hapless housewife to fierce female who is ready to rake her own husband over the financial and legal coals is something to behold.
By the end credits, the film breathes with life -- which is fascinating given that when you look back at the crime story with so much going on, actually very little happens. That is perhaps the fault of the tale itself from Leonard’s The Switch. Clearly if this was one of his most riveting books, we would have gotten a screen version by now.
But, Schechter has taken the best parts of the novel and presented a crime thriller with some laughs that keeps you guessing right up until the end.
Want to see how Hawkes' and Bey's characters turn out? Watch Jackie Brown online!