At the time of his death last year, renowned crime-humorist Elmore Leonard had seen, by my count, a whopping seventeen of his novels adapted into films, each adaptation featuring its own take on his literary-cinematic dialogue and likeable-but-dangerous characters. The newest addition to the lot is Dan Schechter’s Life of Crime, based on Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch, and like any Elmore Leonard adaptation it comes replete with botched criminal enterprise, dark humor, and various competing agendas that collide in strategically timed explosions.
The film centers on a pair of Detroit semi-criminals, Ordell Robbie (yasiin bey, who you may remember as Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes), who Leonardites will recognize as younger versions of Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro’s characters from Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s film itself being an adaptation of Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. Ordell and Louis form a plan to kidnap and ransom Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the glamorous wife of sour-faced real estate magnate and country club golfer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). However, upon successfully carrying out the operation, Ordell and Louis discover they have timed the kidnapping horribly: Frank has in fact served Mickey with divorce papers just prior to her kidnapping and is now in the Bahamas with his mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher), setting into motion a series of blurrily comical/criminal events that anyone experienced with Leonard works has come to expect.
A major emphasis of the Life of Crime’s production as a whole is the preservation of the novel’s 70s setting. Beginning with the opening guitar-plucks of Darondo’s “Didn’t I,” the film is a swirl of 70s pastiche and vintage soul nostalgia, from the “Copyright MMXIII all rights reserved” knowingly placed under the straight-ahead title card to the kitschy slow-zoom shots and split-screen phone conversations. The full-blown tacky throwback effect is somewhere between Boogie Nights and American Hustle, yet it’s markedly less successful than either. Why? Because the aforementioned films both used the era and setting for a historical backdrop (70s porn explosion and ABSCAM, respectively) and as a means for cultural analysis. Beyond the arbitrary setting of its source material, Life of Crime has no real need to be placed in its era, choosing instead to position itself as a general celebration of 70s style without substance to back it up.
And it’s that lack of real substance that does Life of Crime in. The film suffers from an interminable case of the Not Enoughs. It’s not quite hard or gritty enough to carry the necessary tension of a hostage movie, and not quite funny enough to make its generally lighthearted tone compelling. The characters aren’t quite well developed enough beyond their costumes to make them memorable. They’re not quite mean enough to make them believable criminals, and not quite nice enough for them to be truly likeable. At its best moments, their endlessly confused and speculative interplay is an exploration of how peoples’ competing agendas inform their actions. But the film isn’t able to tightly hold onto all of those competing motivations — it loses track of them at some point, and who’s trying to do what stops adding up or really mattering. Instead we’re left with a jumbled pile of abandoned threads.
It would be unfair to say that Life of Crime wastes its ensemble cast, but it doesn’t fully utilize them either. There’s no shortage of promising actors: beyond the main cast, there’s Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior as a perverted bigot who collects Nazi war memorabilia, a lost-looking Will Forte as Mickey’s country-club admirer, the eternally-underused Kevin Corrigan as a detective who manages to hang on for all of half a minute of screen time — all faces that wander through the film, but never are given enough time to make the most of their having been there in the first place. Even the main cast feels somehow underused. John Hawkes spends most of the film muttering sincere-sounding lines between endless cigarette puffs, and yasiin bey and Isla Fisher, the film’s two standouts, are able to steal scenes but aren’t given enough backstory or depth to fully develop their characters into real human beings.
There is plenty to be said for Life of Crime: the sets are lush and memorable, the soundtrack respectable, the cast full of promise and the dialogue coming from legendary source material. It has all the right pieces in place to be great. It simply lacks the glue to piece them together into that greatness, and the lack of delivery on all that promise is frustrating to watch. As Melanie at one point laments, “The bad isn’t exactly bad and the good isn’t exactly sensational.” The result is stuck somewhere in the middle.