Film Review: Life of Crime

Amateur kidnapping goes awry in a darkly comic adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel.

A pitch-perfect adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, Life of Crime captures the author's trademark mix of simmering tension and black comedy. A talented cast and subtle direction make this an absorbing, if low-key, movie that will appeal more to fans of TV's "Justified" than to splashier films like Jackie Brown.

Based on 1978's The Switch, Life of Crime features two characters from Jackie Brown, Ordell Robbie (played here by yasiin bey, aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes). Third-rate crooks with aspirations, Ordell and Louis set out to kidnap Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of crooked real-estate tycoon Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). The crime is nearly undone by Marshall Taylor (Will Forte), Mickey's milquetoast admirer, who winds up unconscious in her bedroom closet.

Ordell and Louis stash Mickey with Richard (Mark Boone Junior), an unhinged Nazi sympathizer and gun nut, then phone Frank with a ransom demand for a million dollars. But Frank, in the Bahamas with his lover Melanie (Isla Fisher), has just served Mickey with divorce papers. Melanie thinks Mickey's disappearance might not be a bad thing.

Frank can't go to the police without risking his illegal activities (for that matter, neither can the married Marshall). When Frank refuses to pay Mickey's ransom, Ordell and Louis are caught in a stalemate. Egged on by Melanie, Ordell wonders if Mickey might not be worth more dead.

Although a period piece, Life of Crime is so psychologically astute that it would make just as much sense today. One reason why Leonard's characters are so absorbing is that they're not as smart as they think they are. Just as much fun is watching how they grow into their roles. Louis and Ordell start out stumbling through situations, but gradually learn how to manipulate their opponents. Mickey in particular blossoms from victim to someone in charge of her fate.

Aniston, one of the movie's many executive producers, is unexpectedly good as a sheltered housewife who finds her claws. She's matched by Hawkes, predominately goofy but dangerous when he has to be. Robbins nails his role as a drunk blowhard, alternately loathsome and sympathetic, while Fisher is ferocious as his lover. bey continues his string of smart, understated performances. His Ordell never loses his cool even when he falls a step or two behind the plot.

Director Daniel Schechter, who also wrote the adaptation, keeps a lot of Leonard's distinctive dialogue, like Mickey's dig at Marshall's cowardice: "There's a hole in my closet door the size of you." Schechter also brings 1978 Detroit to life, from its boozy country clubs to its rundown bars. Period details, in particular some ghastly outfits, are choice but not overwhelming.

Leonard's many fans will appreciate how Schechter balances the novel's goofy, surreal comedy with the sense that bloodshed might erupt at any moment. Life of Crime promises one movie—a bloody, chaotic kidnap thriller—but ends up delivering another. Despite some sordid, violent touches, all in all it's a fairly good-natured story about desperate people trying to make their way in an unforgiving world.

Click here for cast & crew information.