Thursday, August 28, 2014

Crime Time: LIFE OF CRIME


A neat little thriller dressed up in 70’s clothing, Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime is a humble charmer coasting on genre pleasures. After a summer of big digital things crashing into other big digital things and muscled men standing around slugging it out while feeling bad about it, how nice to settle into a small scale heist that twists with a sense of humor. Here the women are strong, the men are stupid clever, and the dupes are below average. Even when blindfolded and kidnapped, bored Detroit housewife Jennifer Aniston is still in more control of the situation than you’d think, while the men who caught her spin their wheels, befuddled by how sideways a simple extortion has gone.

The nifty plotting is lifted wholesale from the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch, keeping his ear for breezily laconic pulp dialogue and fine sense of darkly comic thriller plotting. The kidnappers are Ordell (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes). If those characters sound familiar, it’s because they were also key criminal elements in Tarantino’s 1997 Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown, where Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro played them. That film is a great crime picture full of tremendous performances and Tarantino’s finest filmmaking to date. Of course Life of Crime isn’t nearly as good as Jackie Brown. That it manages to be its own agreeable thing with faint pleasing echoes of that earlier film instead of a flat out impersonating prequel is a nice surprise. Schechter doesn’t push too hard, keeping the proceedings sharp and quick.

It’s fun to watch Aniston struggle to outsmart the men holding her captive as they try to get money out of her rich husband (Tim Robbins), especially once it becomes clear he won’t pay up. He’s out of town with his mistress (Isla Fisher). Getting a threatening call from a stranger promising to make it so he never sees his wife again is sort of a blessing. That throws everyone in a loop. Aniston tries to keep herself alive. Fisher lounges around in a bikini, trying to keep her man from paying up. Bey and Hawke try to keep Aniston cooped up with a slobby neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Junior) while they rethink their plans. It’s one quickly paced complication after another as the gears turn and a wry bumbling crime drama tips towards dark farce without tipping all the way over.

Period detail is abundant and charming, quite intentionally drawing a connection between this and small crime pictures of the era. The source material was first published in 1978, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a Walter Matthau circa Charley Varrick or Karen Black circa The Outfit appearing in a contemporaneous adaptation, were such a thing to have happened. This is undeniably a modern film harkening back to an older way of doing these kinds of pictures, but the feeling is a pleasant approximation. The direction is a throwback to a crisp and clear style. The cinematography by Eric Alan Edwards is simple and grainy. The crime plotting is character driven and cleverly executed, a nice balance. It knows a Leonard story isn’t about what happens, but how it happens and who has what to say about it.

The ensemble is perfectly calibrated for a well-balanced blend of danger and dopey grins. (I haven’t even mentioned a hilarious subplot featuring Will Forte as Aniston’s panicked lover who has to decide whether to report her missing and reveal their affair or ignore it and hope nothing too bad happens to her.) The performers play well together, crackling their competing goals against each other as plots diverge, and stumbling blocks send everyone angling for their best possible outcome. Crosses, double-crosses, and strange bedfellows are the name of the game. It’s an enjoyable Leonard adaptation, one of the few that get his tricky tone and twisty stories right, and, in its humble way, probably the best since the brief 90’s heyday of its kind.

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