Life of Crime

October 4, 2014
Jennifer Aniston in 'Life of Crime' (2013)
Jennifer Aniston in 'Life of Crime' (2013)

Comparisons may be odious, but they can hardly be avoided when it comes to Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime and David O. Russell’s hit of last year, American Hustle. Both are slick crime-comedies set in a detail-perfect reconstruction of 1970s America – an ere that now looks as if it were designed specifically for comic purposes.

As if that weren’t enough, Life of Crime is based on a novel by that master of the lowlife, the late Elmore Leonard. That story, The Switch (1978), introduced characters that reappeared in a later novel, Rum Punch (1992), which was adapted by Quentin Tarantino for the film, Jackie Brown (1997). As this is only Schechter’s third feature it takes a certain chutzpah to put oneself on the same plane as Russell (through a quirk of timing) and Tarantino. Although Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s third feature, he had made an enormous splash with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).

The best one can say about Life of Crime, is that it’s a nice try. The script and direction are good, but not in the same class as American Hustle, which was patently superior to 12 Years a Slave, the film that took out the Oscar for best picture in 2103 – a victory for earnestness over talent. Schechter’s movie also lacks the extremes of violence and humour one finds in Tarantino, not to mention the encyclopaedic range of references that endears this shameless poseur to film buffs.

If one can overlook these invidious comparisons, Life of Crime comes across as smart, entertaining, and thoroughly recommendable. It tells the story of a kidnapping gone wrong, when a trio of bumbling crooks abduct a society woman whose philandering husband has already filed for divorce. Should he fork out a million dollars for her safe return only for the pleasure of paying alimony?

The setting is Detroit, 1978, archetypal Leonard territory. Two small-time crooks, Louis and Ordell, are plotting their first foray into kidnapping. Can it be that hard? Ordell has figured all the angles, or so he thinks.

Louis is played by John Hawkes and Ordell by Yasiin Bey (AKA. rapper, Mo Def), in what seems a daunting assignment when we remember that their counterparts in Jackie Brown were brought to the screen by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson. These earlier versions are naïve and rather benign compared to the hardened crims in the Tarantino flick, but there can be no complaint about the quality of the performances. We can see Ordell as a crime king in the making, but the younger Louis seems a lot smarter and more charming than the later version.

As an accomplice they bring in Richard (Mark Boone Jr.), a buffoonish Neo-Nazi, with a reflexive hatred of blacks and Jews. He tolerates Ordell, who in turn thinks Richard is so dumb that it’s cute.

The mark is Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), blonde, society wife of property developer, Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), who has been salting money away in a secret Caribbean bank account. It seems a simple pitch to kidnap Mickey, tell Frank they know about the secret account, and ask for a million dollars ransom. Yet the snatch, accomplished with the aid of ridiculous rubber masks, doesn’t go as planned when they are interrupted by Marshall (Will Forte), one of Frank’s country club chums, who has the hots for Mickey.

Marshall’s comical cowardice will play out as a subplot. The main game lies with Frank, who is lounging in the Bahamas with his mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher), when he gets the call from Mickey’s kidnappers. Encouraged by Melanie, he ignores their threats, causing consternation. The situation is complicated by the fact that Louis’s consideration for Mickey is turning an attachment, while the demented Richard is steaming with dangerous animal passions.

For her part, Mickey is adjusting to life in captivity. She finds Louis’s attitude a big improvement on her husband’s, and begins to take control of events. Aniston manages the transformation from victim to aggressor in a neatly understated manner. Soon she is on the side of the kidnappers and Frank is the enemy.

It would be futile to look for deeper meanings in this black comedy of manners. The chief source of humour lies in the fact that the bad guys are nowhere near as bad as Frank – respected businessman and stalwart of the country club. In Elmore Leonard’s world crime is only another form of business in which the spoils go to those who show skill and imagination. Perhaps one should add: to those with expertise in risk management, because every plan is sure to go awry. For Leonard this was more than a plot device, it was a philosophy of life.

Life of Crime
Directed by Daniel Schechter
Written by Daniel Schechter, after a novel by Elmore Leonard
Starring Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey (AKA. Mos Def), Mark Boone Jr., Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher, Will Forte
USA, rated MA 15+, 99 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th October, 2014.