As far as expectation goes, Life of Crime has a bad hand to deal with from the off. Based on the 1978 novel The Switch by Elmore Leonard, this is now the last motion picture to bear the novelist’s intimate involvement due to his passing in August of last year. Considering this is the same author whose works have inspired films such as Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, there was an unfair legacy weighed against the Jennifer Aniston-led caper before it even saw the light of day at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Directed and written-for-screen by Deniel Schecter, Life of Crime has made its way to the general populous with its bell-bottomed jeans, funk-standard soundtrack and country club chic to attempt to deliver, on some level, the bookend that Leonard’s career deserves. With such co-stars as Tim Robbins and Yasiin Bey, the odds are firmly in its favor, but are spoiled by an ill-paced script and poorly thought-out story-telling.
Being a comedy caper, the satirical tone is established swiftly with Bey’s Odell and John Hawkes’ Louis conspiring together to commit their crime of choice. That crime? A kidnapping, of one Mickey Dawson, a high-up rich man’s wife. All for that sweet, sweet ransom patcheck. Warm, affable and altogether rough around the edges, the duo’s immediate chemistry on-screen sets hopes high and once we meet Aniston’s Mickey in married misery with Robbins’ Frank, we wait comfortably for the master-plan to unfold. Except it doesn’t. Or at least, it does, but nowhere near as much as the opening half-hour promises. Mickey is successfully kidnapped, though with a suitable mess left behind, and Odell and Louis are as hapless as any loveable criminal pairing, but while the comedic elements all check in on time, its the drama that demonstrates a disappointing lack of depth to the story.
There’s several different emotional ties given to us in the early scenes, all pointing towards a more serious edge to the plot that never sees any kind of satisfactory conclusion. Of course, some form of reasoning is necessary for us to care at all, but there’s a reliance on characters who have a succinct dark side that just doesn’t equate to how vacuous the second half’s resolution ends up being. These sub-plots aren’t easy-going either – some very hefty themes are played on through-out, but none are given the necessary gravitas to create an investment that will even see out the film. Everything just slides down this slow slope, before taking a nose-dive after the first hour. The slick comedic wit devolves into slapstick, the irredeemable characters never see satisfactory come-uppance and the final punch-lines all have an air of contrivance that completely let down their set-up.
But the most disappointing aspect of Life of Crime is how weak most of the characters are developed and maintained. Aniston leads the troupe with Mickey as the high-valued victim, but at no point does she demonstrate agency, or full, able-minded decision making. She bows to being kidnapped without hesitation, and doesn’t protest her captivity, despite being someone of social standing and perceived self-importance, if even by proximity. Melanie, played by Isla Fisher, on the other hand, is shown to be a controller who is smarter that her character seems who knows how to manipulate situations in her favor. However, this doesn’t stop her being relegated to a punch-line of a stereotype that she spends much of film doing anything but fulfilling. These are the most glaring examples of a cast who are under-utilized and whose characters are under-played, even though they get plenty of screen-time. It all ends up feeling vapid, uninspired and rudimentary by the end, which is made all the worse by how well it started.
Its a shame Life of Crime is Elmore Leonard’s last film; its not a strong note to end on by any stretch. A very strong set of performances is almost totally wasted on a meandering narrative that doesn’t much of anything to any great strength. When its funny, its genuinely funny, but that gets rarer as the feature runs on, with the length of time between laughs growing after each landed punch-line. There’s an obvious sincerity and a want to make Life of Crime as good as it can be, and it simply never gets beyond the faults of a bad screenplay.
Strong performances don’t redeem a weak story and poor characterization. 3/10