The latest in a long line of Elmore Leonard adaptations opens with a bang, but unfolds, sadly, with more of a whimper. During a pre-credit, cold opening of Life of Crime we get a hit-and-run look at how Louis Gara (John Hawkes) and Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), a couple of small-time hoods, operate.
Ordell, who’s learning his criminal trade under the tutelage of Louis, gets robbed of $27 and his $200 switchblade while peeing at a urinal inside the dingy bathroom at a dive bar. Heading outside to meet Louis in their van, Ordell tells his greasy-haired, mustachioed mentor that he was robbed by the beefy pimp who’s now standing by the front door, bordered by two of his prostitutes. Louis prods the overly cautious, goateed Ordell to threaten the man—and if that doesn’t work? “Run.”
And run Ordell does. As the pimp chases Ordell past the van and down the Detroit street, it affords Louis the opportunity to run over the flesh peddler with his vehicle. Twice.
Little-known director Daniel Schechter then cuts to a country club party that serves to introduce platinum blond, drunken dirtbag Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) his put-upon wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), and wannabe philanderer Marshall Taylor (Will Forte, sporting a ’70s ’stache and ’burns), who’s hot for Mrs. Dawson. Frank’s brandishing a huge golf trophy that he’s clearly proud of—but not as proud as he is of his trophy wife. Or so it seems.
Daniel Schechter so desperately wants to infuse his movie with a ’70s vibe—straight down to the funky music by the Newton Brothers—that he even falls back on a faux-optical title superimposed on top of an establishing shot of the party that announces the film’s name, a change from The Switch, the title of the Leonard book the movie’s based on. This is the first misstep that Schechter makes in his adaptation, which nevertheless has plenty of shaggy-dog charm. And the scruffiness suits Leonard’s material just fine.
Not to mention, Schechter’s casting choices are pretty damn good. True, Louis and Ordell might not have the screen heft of Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson when they played older versions of the same characters in Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch, but this is a smaller story—which is for the best, since Schechter isn’t nearly as ambitious as Tarantino. Nor does he have the stylistic chops of the Pulp Fiction Oscar winner, or even Barry Sonnenfeld (director of the 1995 adaptation of Leonard’s Get Shorty), and especially not Steven Soderbergh, who directed what still remains the greatest Leonard adaptation committed to celluloid, 1998’s Out of Sight.
By default, this is the best Leonard adaptation captured digitally, a shooting decision that harms this movie’s sense of place. As lensed by Eric Alan Edwards, it looks like every other crummy movie that’s clogging up the cineplexes—meaning it’ll look right at home on your TV, where it’s destined to attract most of its fans during late-night runs on cable.
Louis and Ordell find their way into the apartment of Richard (Mark Boone Junior), a redneck with a taste for Nazi memorabilia. If it weren’t for his lisp, you might easily mistake him for Jeff Bridges’ iconic character, The Dude—until a midfilm mishap finds him requiring an eye patch, and thus looking more like Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn. A sign in this racist’s kitchen reads, “Nothing is lower than n—— or Jews, except the cops that protect them.” This bearded idiot doesn’t even seem to notice any irony in that fact that he’s frying chicken for the black Ordell, or that he spends much of the movie disguising himself (badly) as a police officer, once the picture’s main kidnapping plot kicks into gear.
Louis and Ordell plan on snatching Frank’s socialite wife while he’s out of town on business (the business of fraud and embezzlement, not to mention adultery) and then demanding a $1 million ransom from the louse. But what to do once they discover Frank filed divorce papers before flying to the Bahamas to hop in bed with his mistress (Isla Fisher)? Hell, why pay to get his wife back, if it means he’ll never have to pay alimony?
The plan only goes downhill from here. While Louis and Ordell try to figure out their next move, Mickey’s left to fend off the Nazi-minded pervert in whose home she’s been stashed, while Marshall—who witnessed her abduction—takes the cowardly route, pretending he’s seen nothing.
And ultimately, there’s not a lot to see here. Much of Leonard’s dialogue remains intact,
as a sweet interaction blossoms between Louis and Mickey, his infatuation becoming a sort
of reverse-Stockholm syndrome. But there’s really not a lot at stake, other than Louis trying to convince Ordell not to chop off Mickey’s fingers.
And while there is a nice bit of turnabout at the end—it is a Leonard plot, after all—the
rest of the picture lacks the precise comic beats that made other Leonard adaptations so memorable.
Leonard served as an executive producer on the picture, which premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, a month after his death. But despite the involvement of the author himself, Schechter’s adaptation doesn’t pop so much as gradually deflate.
Life of Crime **1/2
Starring John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey, Jennifer Aniston, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Tim Robbins, Mark Boone Junior and Kevin Corrigan. Screenplay by Daniel Schechter, based on the novel The Switch by Elmore Leonard. Directed by Daniel Schechter. At West Newton.