Life of Crime *** (out of five)
To do Elmore Leonard right on screen, you’ve got to achieve the right tone, which is breezy and witty with tasteful dollops of violence. Your criminals have to be likeable, your dialogue has to sparkle unexpectedly, the story lines must be weighted appropriately (which is usually to say equally) and the style has to be consistent and unique. An Elmore Leonard film (or TV show – Justified is a brilliant Elmore Leonard adaptation) should look and sound like an Elmore Leonard film.
Life of Crime, based on Leonard’s 1978 The Switch, looks and sounds like an Elmore Leonard film, and, coupled with that novel’s excellent plot and characters, means it’s already got a lot of good eggs inits basket. The Switch was my favourite Leonard book when I tore through about twenty of them when I was a young teenager, handed down to me by my father one summer, partly because it’s so quintessentially Leonardovian. Its two lead male characters are witty, likeable criminals; its bad guy – only partially, or at least a white-collared, criminal – is a dick, its got some excellent, funny minor characters, and an excellent and surprisingly gutsy female lead. The plot is so much genius that we have to remember he thought of it first (Ruthless People did not): when a rich guy’s wife is nabbed in a kidnapping extortion attempt, the bad guys weren’t to know that he’d already filed for divorce, and won’t pay the ransom. Wit, twists and general enjoyment ensue.
The rich guy is played beautifully by Tim Robbins, who, in his middle age, plays rich dicks every bit as well as he did when he was younger (see The Player). The criminals are played with easygoing Leonardism by John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), and the kidnapped wife by Jennifer Aniston with grace and style. It’s great to see Aniston, who probably has a few hundred million dollars thanks to Friends, picking indie films like this, where she would have been paid a relative pittance, because she likes the material, the creative team, the role or all of the above: without the pressure of having to carry some bloated studio rom-com, she is relaxed and free of mannerism and gives a very likeable and appropriate performance.
The film is not as funny or brilliantly vibrant as Get Shorty (1995) nor as textured as Jackie Brown (1997, based on Rum Punch, and sharing characters with The Switch / Life of Crime) nor as out of sight as Out of Sight (1998). But it is better than 52 Pick-Up (1986), Touch (1997), The Big Bounce (2004), Be Cool (2005) and Freaky Deaky (2012), among other Leonard adaptations (there are 43 listed on IMDB, many of the early ones westerns, of which both versions of 3:10 To Yuma, 1957 and 2007, are excellent.) If anything, Hawkes and Bey play their characters a little too genial, laid-back and low-key, and Isla Fisher, who’s playing a character she should be able to do in her sleep, perhaps relies on that fact, and gets her performance strangely wrong. But it’s good, solid Leonard, which, for me at least, is a cosy, comfortable, and extremely fun place to be for ninety-eight minutes.