“I hope he learned something. But I doubt it.” Thus does small-time crook Louis Gara (John Hawkes) dismiss an even smaller-time hustler whom he’s one-upped early in Life of Crime, director Daniel Schechter’s faithful adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch. Alas, this pitying assessment might just as easily be applied to Louis and his partner, Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def), who are poised to embark on an exceptionally ill-fated criminal undertaking.
The plan is to kidnap and ransom the socialite wife, Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), of a Detroit real-estate magnate. The problem is that her husband (Tim Robbins) has no interest in paying a ransom, having already secretly begun divorce proceedings in order to marry his young mistress (Isla Fisher). So the hapless kidnappers and their victim are stuck with one another, holed up in the home of a still-more-hapless confederate (Mark Boone Jr.) with a disturbing collection of Nazi memorabilia. (If you think this sounds strikingly like Ruthless People, you are not alone: There were plans to adapt The Switch back in the 1980s, with Diane Keaton and Dennis Farina starring, but the project was shelved in part due to the similarity between the two plots.)
Life of Crime finds its place among neither the best adaptations of Leonard (Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and TV’s Justified) nor the worst (Be Cool and both iterations of The Big Bounce), and it almost certainly will not be the last. But the fact that it was the final film in production when Leonard passed away last year—he saw scenes from the picture but never the final version—does lend it a certain bittersweet flavor for fans of the author’s work.
The Switch is among Leonard’s most openly comic novels, and for the most part Schechter does a nice job of balancing its humor and suspense. (One exception is a scene involving a dog that did not appear in the book.) Aniston delivers a solid performance as Mickey, though one that is a touch soft around the edges: There ought to be more steel beneath her trophy-wife exterior. Hawkes is nuanced and persuasive in the role of Louis, and Bey is a minor revelation as Ordell, capturing Leonard’s verbal rhythms as expertly as any actor to date. (Both characters will be familiar to admirers of Jackie Brown—adapted from this novel’s sequel, Rum Punch—which stars Robert DeNiro as Louis and Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell.) Robbins is appropriately self-regarding as the wayward husband, and Fisher exhibits just the right degree of low cunning as his grifty young girlfriend. Boone, by contrast, edges toward satire as the Nazi fetishist, and Will Forte is a tad too recessive as an ineffectual would-be adulterer.
Schechter renders the period details capably but without particular gusto, in contrast to, say, David O. Russell’s American Hustle. (The exception is the delightfully nostalgic soundtrack, which features such era hits as “Don’t Pull Your Love” and “Dreadlock Holiday”—the latter proving the second sly appropriation of a 10cc song this month.) The movie flags a bit in its final act before landing its ultimate punchline, but perhaps its greatest disappointment is that it was shot primarily in Connecticut. The city of Detroit, expertly portrayed by Leonard in the novel, never registers as more than an abstraction.
All told, Life of Crime is an amiable diversion, though not a terribly memorable one. And while the movie’s affection for its source material is evident, Leonard aficionados longing for a truly worthy sendoff of the master crime writer will have to look ahead, toward the upcoming final season of Justified, and cross their fingers.