Directed by: Daniel Schechter
Premise: Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. A trio of criminals kidnap the wife of a corrupt real-estate developer. Unknown to the criminals, the husband had planned on divorcing his wife and so he is unmotivated to pay the ransom.
What Works: The literary works of Elmore Leonard have been the source of a lot of movies including 3:10 to Yuma, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight. Leonard’s work tends to have complex characters and his stories usually provide those characters with situations that posit moral dilemmas. Life of Crime is consistent with many of the better films adapted from Leonard’s works and it has the wit, kooky characters, and intelligence that are the hallmarks of his stories. Although Leonard’s work frequently features criminal characters they aren’t all bad to the bone. In fact, there is a moral complexity to these characters and that’s seen throughout Life of Crime. This gives the actors a chance to provide interesting performances and the performances elevate this picture. Life of Crime is led by Jennifer Aniston as a married woman who is kidnapped by a trio of small time criminals. Aniston has made her career mostly in light hearted romantic comedies but periodically she has gone beyond her public image in titles like The Good Girl. Aniston’s performance in Life of Crime is one of the best of her career and she demonstrates a range and a capacity for subtlety that she’s never shown before. Her character is held by three men played by Yasiin Bey [previously known as Mos Def], John Hawkes, and Mark Boone Junior. All three of these men give very strong performances although the strongest impression is made by Hawkes. His character is engaging in kidnapping but he reveals moral qualms about violence, only resorting to it reactively and his relationship with Aniston’s character transforms in a credible way. Bey has typically played stupid characters but his role in Life of Crime provides the actor a chance to be much more nuanced and mature. The most colorful character of the movie is Mark Boone Junior’s part as a neo-Nazi. The character is a violent racist and that makes him a figure of fear and ridicule but he’s also intellectually slow and that grants him a degree of sympathy.
What Doesn’t: As a kidnapping film there is lot in Life of Crime that is recognizable from similar movies such as Fargo and Ruthless People. For that reason some of the plot turns in Life of Crime are predictable or at least have a familiar feel. This movie is less idiosyncratic than Fargo and less funny that Ruthless People and while that distinguishes Life of Crime from similar movies the lack of outright laughs or zany characters comes to the movie’s detriment. The film is poised to take off in absurd directions but it never does; director Daniel Schechter maintains an even tone through the picture. That evenness generally works for the movie because it has sequences that have the potential to be outrageously comic but other sequences are especially dark and serious and the restraint brought to the material allows the film to navigate these scenes without taking the viewer out of the picture. In terms of plotting Life of Crime speeds along, wrapping up its story in just ninety-eight minutes but the film has a problematic ending. It’s a strange conclusion because the end of the picture is simultaneously too tidy and too open ended. Jennifer Aniston’s character is put through a frightening ordeal but there is a reversal in the ending that undermines the trauma she has experienced while also setting up a potential new storyline that not pursued. The moviemakers get away with this conclusion because the reversal ends Life of Crime on a satisfyingly comic note but in disrupts the narrative cohesion of the film.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, and deleted scenes.
Bottom Line: Life of Crime will be of interest to fans of Elmore Leonard’s literary works and it’s a fine crime film that mixes noir and black comedy. The story isn’t especially surprising but the film does have interesting characters and an impressive performance by Jennifer Aniston.
Episode: #505 (August 24, 2014)