Movie Review: ‘Life of Crime’ pays off

Jennifer Aniston stars in
Jennifer Aniston stars in "Life of Crime.'

‘Life of Crime’
★★★

With the exception of a handful of standouts like “Get Shorty” and TV’s “Justified,” the recently deceased novelist Elmore Leonard suffered through plenty of bad movie adaptations, but “Life of Crime” basically gets it right.

That’s no surprise, really, considering that Leonard also executive produced the kidnapping comedy of errors.

Based on his 1978 novel “The Switch,” “Life of Crime” is set in Detroit that same year, with big cars, bad clothes and regrettable hairstyles abounding. It’s an early point in the crime career of Leonard regular Ordell Robbie (played by Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” and here by Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def) and his charm is more in evidence here than his cold-blooded ruthlessness.

Ordell, who has been supplying stolen furniture and appliances to crooked real-estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), knows Frank is socking away $50,000 in undeclared income monthly in an offshore account. He also knows Frank has a pretty trophy wife named Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) that he imagines Frank cares about more than his money. So he teams up with his old friend Louis (John Hawkes) to kidnap Mickey and demand a million-dollar ransom.

Unfortunately for them and, potentially, for Mickey, they soon learn Frank has filed for divorce and that he has a mistress named Melanie (Isla Fisher) who’s strongly encouraging him not to pay.

The basic situation is comparable to the 1986 black comedy “Ruthless People,” featuring Danny DeVito as a husband who is delighted when his shrew of a wife (Bette Midler) is kidnapped. But straight-up, blatant comedy isn’t Leonard’s style and “Life of Crime” adapter/director Daniel Schechter (“Supporting Characters”) settles into the proper groove here, from the beginning. The tone is generally playful throughout, even when it comes to dealing with characters such as Richard (Mark Boone Junior), the Nazi-fetishizing, white-supremacist gun-nut, peeping-tom Ordell and Louis hire as an accomplice. “He’s so dumb, it’s adorable,” Ordell says after one of the guy’s rants about sending black people back to Africa.

It’s kidnapping lite, in other words, allowing for a bit of romantic attraction to develop between Louis (Hawkes in likeable, mildly anxious mode) and Mickey, who turns out to be not quite as helpless as she seems. Though, as usual in Leonard, the danger is no less real. Ordell, for example, starts thinking a few of Mickey’s fingers might help Frank make his mind up.

That sort of balancing act is difficult to pull off, but Schechter manages it, for the most part, thanks in large part to deft performances. It’s what makes the difference between a good Leonard movie and a bad one and “Life of Crime” passes the test. Even if you find the final plot twist a bit hard to swallow, it’ll probably feel right in terms of sorting out the good guys and the bad guys. Leonard’s characters don’t always end up on the right side of the law, but justice is usually served.

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