Whether or not to embrace the “Life of Crime”

I returned to Birmingham 8 again this evening to catch Life of Crime, in a deliberate choice to see the new Elmore Leonard adaptation right in the author’s own backyard. It’s a shame Leonard did not live to see this film through to its release, though he receives an “executive producer” credit, as the film was finished shortly before his death last year. The film is set right here in Oakland and Wayne counties in Michigan, but was filmed in Connecticut. I could tell the difference, but also noticed a few Michigan – local touches placed onscreen at random moments, such as a sign for Interstate 696.

The filmmakers ought to have licensed my friend Zach’s same-titled song for use at some point during the movie. Instead they rely on a series of tunes from the 70’s, when the film is set, and an appropriately vintage tinged music score by the Newton Brothers.

life of crime posterThe film serves as an origin story for three characters also seen in Rum Punch/Jackie Brown (another Leonard story), previously played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda, and portrayed here by Mos Def, John Hawkes and Isla Fisher. This story doesn’t make an overt attempt to tie the characters together, or match the portrayal to the previous actor, but I found it fun to know how “they aged” and are seen later on “in their lives”, since Jackie Brown (which I saw again in the theatre earlier this year) takes place 20 years after these events. And I’m sure that if the viewer looked closer at this portrayal, there may indeed be some links to tie it to the later story.

As it is, the main story of this film follows Mickey, a suburban housewife somewhere in Oakland County who is at wits end with her older husband, played by Tim Robbins. Circumstances leave Mickey at home one day, where she is kidnapped (not a spoiler) by Def and Hawkes over to a nearby house and essentially held for ransom. Meanwhile, her husband has flown down to the Bahamas to meet up with “friend” Melanie (Fisher) and other dubious associates. The characters find themselves in an increasingly complicated web where actions are not what they seem and there are several switchbacks leading towards a winking finale.

I found the film to be redeemed by its third act. Prior to the story setting up its conclusion, things with Mickey and her captors pitted against her husband and associates seemed to be going in an increasingly predictable and slightly unpleasant line. However, Melanie introduces a series of complications — as she also does, later, in Jackie Brown — that take the story to an unpredictable and wacky edge. This last third is also where Aniston is given her best opportunity to shine, as the earlier part of the story finds her seeming dour and confused.

An unrecognizable Will Forte isn’t given much chance to show his comedy roots in a mostly serious supporting role as “a family friend” who has eyes for Aniston. Robbins, looking much older, carries effective presence in his scenes, but seems to drift in and out of the story. Another reviewer pointed out that the role directly contradicts Robbins’ well – known sociopolitical views, but that is what we do for our art… Getting back to the earlier point, I feel that the trio of Hawkes, Def and Fisher fare the best throughout the film, especially in their last few scenes when they can relax in the roles and be in on the joke.

On the whole the film only seems to settle in that last third. If the filmmakers had set up this tone earlier, and let the pieces fall into place in more of a coy manner, along the lines of Get Shorty, they would have done themselves a favor. I think the film is still worth seeing in a “wait for the video” type of way and with an awareness of the unevenness. And if Def, Hawkes and Fisher want to team up with Jackson, DeNiro and Fonda, they’d really have some fun.


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