Film Reviews

Elmore Leonard Deserves Better Flicks Than Life of Crime

Weep at another whiff of an Elmore Leonard adaptation, one that nails down neither the peppery laughs nor the street-crime desperation that are key to the writer's work. Instead, the comedy is too broad to take the characters seriously, and the vibe is breezily aimless, a mistake in a story about anxious waiting. The Switch, the Leonard tale getting the movie-star makeover in Life of Crime, concerns a couple of hoods' kidnapping of a rich crook's wife — but come to find out the crook has just served her with papers and prefers that she be kidnapped. Jennifer Aniston plays the wife, and she's almost worth the ticket price — she wields that endlessly expressive face of hers to evince fear, confusion, amusement, and annoyance, often all at once. (Her filmy '70s blouses suggest someone should build an American Hustle around her.)

Her character is holed up in the stinking home of a cartoonish neo-Nazi, where kidnappers (John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey) try to sweat bucks out of her husband (Tim Robbins), who's at the beach with his mistress (Isla Fisher) and won't return the kidnappers' calls. A few strong, stinging moments from Aniston aside, the film is often slack, and key scenes are AWOL: Time passes in fits, tension never mounts, and once the double-crosses begin, we just have to take the movie's word for it that somewhere in there, Character B and Character C have discovered something worth trusting in each other.

Hawkes and Bey are strong and likable presences, but the movie never puts the screws to them. You can tell from the first reels that they'll eventually be at odds with that white supremacist (Mark Boone Junior), a piggish rapist whose decor is all filth and swastikas. It's hard not to wonder: Why should we care about criminals dumb enough to throw in with this man-pile? (Leonard makes it clear that his losers have no other choice; the movie just asks us to accept it.) Because his choice of partner is as bad as her choice of husband, it's no surprise that Hawkes' character inevitably stirs some minor longing from Aniston's, and the attraction is nicely underplayed. She's never better than when looking perplexed but aroused at the heart's unlikely stirring — still, by the end, like many of the characters here, they seem to share a bond the movie hasn't bothered to show us.

Robbins is funny as a golden boy gone to pot but convinced he's still golden, but he vanishes for long stretches. That facilitates some of those third-act double-crosses, but like too much of what makes it to the screen in Life of Crime, it's weirdly undermotivated. Robbins' character isn't mysteriously gone; he's simply absent, a hole in the movie. Dispiritingly, it's all set in Detroit in the '70s, and the only black female character who's given a name is on-screen for less than 30 seconds, her breasts exposed for a sight gag about "big tittays."

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl