There have been many adaptations of the superb crime novels of the late Elmore Leonard, but what makes his novels so compulsively readable often doesn’t make for a great film: his characters talk a lot, which can make for very static movies, with characters standing around talking rather than doing anything. The best adaptations of his work (Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, Out of Sight) have been made by those who understood the need to retain the rhythm and tone of his dialogue while crafting something cinematic.
Jennifer Aniston is Mickey, the trophy wife of boorish Detroit property developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). Mickey lives a country club lifestyle amongst Detroit’s elite, although she and Frank have an unhappy relationship. Enter ex-cons Ordell Robbie (yasiin bey, aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes), who discover that Frank is a crafty embezzler on a rather grand scale. They hatch a plot to kidnap Mickey and demand a huge ransom, figuring that Frank will be doubly likely to pay with little fuss in order to get his wife back unharmed and to keep his grand larceny secret. What they don’t realise is that Frank is in fact planning to divorce Mickey so he can take up with his younger mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher), who is every bit as conniving a schemer as Frank and the kidnappers.
There is much to enjoy in Life of Crime, an entertaining but not particularly memorable adaptation of Leonard’s novel The Switch, originally published in 1978. The film retains the ‘70s period setting, giving the art and costume people an opportunity to dress the characters and sets in the hideous fashions and décor of the period. The film is well cast, with Robbins good as the bumptious arsehole Frank, nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, Isla Fisher is note perfect as the sexy, scheming Melanie, Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior is creepily comic as a pervy neo-Nazi, and even Jennifer Aniston appropriately underplays for a change. Hawkes and bey are playing the characters first portrayed by Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (set fifteen years after the events of Life of Crime), and both are every bit as good their predecessors.
Despite the impeccable work of a great cast, the great source material and the well done ‘70s trappings, the film still somehow fails to translate enticingly from page to screen; it all just feels a bit flat and really doesn’t stick with you. There are a lot worse ways to spend 94 minutes, and Leonard fans will want to tick this box, but the film isn’t destined for a place on the (very) shortlist of great Elmore Leonard adaptations.