‘Life of Crime’ lacks the source’s sizzle

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Do you recall seeing “Ruthless People” with Danny DeVito and Better Midler? If so, the basic premise of “Life of Crime” will seem familiar to you.

Based on “The Switch” a novel by the late Elmore Leonard, “Life of Crime” follows two small-time crooks, who try to pull off a big sting. Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, the rapper formerly known as Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) are the pair of petty criminals in question.  They are on the bottom rung of the Detroit crime scene, circa 1978. As established in an early vignette, Ordell and especially Louis are easy prey for other small-time hoodlums.

They glean a little piece of inner city gossip. Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), a seemingly reputable real estate developer, is running a bunch of sleazy scams. He’s stashing his ill-gotten gains in an offshore bank account. Ordell and Louis concoct a scheme to kidnap Frank’s wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), and hold her for a million dollar ransom.

A screen capture of the trailer to the film "Life of Crime" at http://lifeofcrimemovie.com/

A screen capture of the trailer to the film “Life of Crime” at http://lifeofcrimemovie.com/

The plan, hatched by Ordell and Louis, fails to anticipate a certain salient fact.  Frank and Mickey are ensnared in an acrimonious, hate-filled marriage. Indeed, Frank is involved in an adulterous affair with Melanie Ralston (Isla Fisher). The two of them vacation together regularly in the Bahamas. Frank is jetting down there for a tryst with his little strumpet. While there, Frank’s attorney will be serving divorce papers on Mickey.

So…what incentive does Frank have to pay ransom? Actually, it would be less than zero. If the kidnappers make good on their threat and kill Mickey, they’ll be doing a favor to Frank. It would obviate the need for him to incur the substantial costs of divorce litigation and alimony payments.

There are a few other twists. Marshall Taylor, one of Frank’s country club cronies, has been persistently trying to hook up with Mickey. He isn’t the only one with designs on Mickey. The kidnapper’s agenda is subverted by the fact that Louis also develops a crush on Mickey. Ordell and Louis have an accomplice, Richard (Mark Boone, Jr.). He’s a fat, unkempt slob, who fetishizes Nazi memorabilia and is a major screw-up. The gold-digging Melanie has her own agenda. None of these subplots have much of a narrative pay-off.

Elmore Leonard’s writing is noteworthy for his colorful characters, gritty realism, and his uncanny ear for dialogue. Hollywood has long limned his writing for cinematic adaptations by some distinguished directors. “Out of Sight” made for Steven Soderbergh’s excellent 1998 film, which paired George Clooney with Jennifer Lopez in her best screen performance ever. It suggested a promising career for her as an effective actress, which never materialized. Leonard’s “Rum Punch” begat the Quentin Tarantino film, “Jackie Brown.” The film featured Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro as older versions of the hapless crooks, Ordell and Louis. John Frankenheimer’s “52 Pick-Up,” Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” and F. Gary Gray’s “Be Cool” are other films, which draw from Leonard’s depiction of contemporary characters with criminal predilections. In addition, Leonard’s westerns were adapted into such films as “3:10 to Yuma” (twice), “Hombre” and “Valdez Is Coming.” Collectively, that constitutes a rather impressive collection of films.

In addition to assembling an impressive cast, “Life of Crime” also has the vaunted Elmore Leonard imprimatur. The screenplay by Daniel Schechter, who also directs, is largely faithful to the plot of the source novel. Unfortunately, it fails to capture any of its considerable sizzle.

**1/2 R (for language, some sexual content and violence) 98 minutes


Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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