Ordell (Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes) have planned the perfect kidnapping. Their target is Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), wife to a sketchy businessman named Frank (Tim Robbins) who’s hiding a fortune in a secret bank account. The plan is simple. Kidnap Mickey, tell Frank to pay the ransom if he ever wants to see his wife again and then retire in style.
But they never considered the possibility that Frank might not want his wife back.
Chronology is a funny thing. The inclination will be (and has been if you check the IMDB page) to label Life of Crime a straight-up rip-off of 1986’s Ruthless People. In actuality though this is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard‘s 1978 novel, The Switch. Keep moving backward and you’ll find that all of these incarnations share an inspiration in O. Henry’s 1907 short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The problem for this film then is how to stand apart from the crowd, and unfortunately, it’s a problem the film never really solves.
The plan experiences the occasional hiccup from the beginning as a paramour (Will Forte) of Mickey’s interrupts the crime and a third kidnapper’s (Mark Boone Junior) penchant for racism and lecherous behavior hints at future trouble, but the biggest obstacle comes in the form of Frank’s scheming lover, Melanie (Isla Fisher). She cultivates and nurtures Frank’s disinterest in paying the ransom as she fancies herself the next Mrs. Dawson, but as is shown with every other player greed and wisdom rarely share the same vessel.
Writer/director Daniel Schechter keeps the story in late ’70s Detroit, but it’s a superfluous decision evident mostly in some big American cars and flashy outfits. There’s little sense of place as most of the action occurs inside. That’s not a problem in a character piece more focused on the people than their surroundings, but what is a problem is the overall simplicity and flatness in these characters.
The cast is fantastic with a singular exception in that Aniston just isn’t selling the unloved and abused Mickey. Her character on the page is equally to blame, but there’s simply no sense of pain, concern or urgency from her. The others fare a bit better, but too frequently we just don’t see far enough into these people to justify the lack of personality and spark. Hawkes brings his usual soft charisma to Louis, but what should be an uncomfortably affectionate bond growing between him and Mickey instead feels sadly unexplored, and while Def hints at a smooth energy it’s left implied instead of shown. Robbins and Fisher, the arguable villains of the piece, end up being the film’s most valuable players. Fisher in particular shows a vitality in her constantly shifting allegiance and a sense of comic delivery missing from much of the rest of the film.
That’s not to imply this is a failed comedy as it never really aims for big laughs the way Ruthless People did. Like much of Leonard’s work it’s more of a black comedy populated by mostly unpleasant characters, but unlike Out of Sight, Mr. Majestyk, Get Shorty and others these folks are also unlikable. It’s not their deeds that do them in… it’s their lack of personality. Schechter is capable of far better — as evidenced funnily enough in his previous feature, Supporting Characters — but here it seems he was possibly overwhelmed and too beholden to the source material.
The story does reach an interesting point eventually, but instead of exploring what promises to be an expanded caper the film simply ends. It feels like the end of a second act or a punchline instead of a conclusion, and it drives home just how unnecessarily elongated everything that came before truly is. The film starts with the crime already planned and moments from implementation, but once Mickey’s taken we’re too often forced to endure side characters’ story lines that add little or nothing to the story as a whole.
Life of Crime is a lesser film even without comparisons to earlier “versions” of the tale, and that — dun dun — is the real crime here.
The Upside: Great cast
The Downside: Never transcends familiarity; characters lack depth; more jaunty than funny; film ends when story gets interesting
On the Side: The O’ Henry short story that inspired Elmore Leonard’s The Switch can be read here: “The Ransom of Red Chief”
Life of Crime opens in limited theatrical release this Friday, 8/29.