Life of Crime

One of the crucial differences between the good Elmore Leonard adaptations and the bad ones is that the good ones understand that the plot isn't as important as the vibe. Leonard's plots are engagingly twisty, but the real pleasure of his work is simply hanging out with the colorful, distinctive characters he creates. Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and the FX series Justified all understood this, and Life of Crime understands it, too. It isn't quite at the top of the pile – it's a pretty slight story, honestly – but it's absolutely a worthy addition to the list of Leonard films worth checking out.

Louis Gara (John Hawkes, The Sessions) and Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) are small-time crooks who have concocted a big-time plan: they're going to kidnap Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston, Picture Perfect), the wife of wealthy businessman Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins, Bob Roberts). The plan is to hold Mickey for ransom, but their scheme hits an unexpected snag. Frank has been hoping to divorce Mickey, and doesn't seem particularly eager to get her back. While Louis and Ordell attempt to think of a new plan, Mickey finds herself growing surprisingly fond of her captors.

The film is based on Leonard's 1978 novel The Switch. Fourteen years after that novel was released, Leonard wrote a sequel: Rum Punch, which served as the source material for Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Technically, that makes Life of Crime a prequel to the Tarantino film, and director Daniel Schechter seems to understand this. Without providing any specific callbacks to that film, he creates a world that feels very similar, and guides Bey, Hawkes and Isla Fisher (The Lookout) into playing characters who feel very much like younger, happier versions of the characters previously essayed by Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson and Bridget Fonda. Hawkes hadn't seen the Tarantino movie before filming Life of Crime, and yet his work as Louis feels almost completely in sync with De Niro's take. The big difference is that De Niro played Louis after life (and prison time) had irreparably damaged him, and Hawkes is playing Louis as an ordinary decent criminal.

Still, it's Aniston who leaves the biggest impression. She's taken a lot of flack over the years for picking terrible projects, but this is a perfect marriage of actress and role. Once upon a time, Mickey was an adored trophy wife. Now her husband (played with cartoonish-but-effective repulsiveness by Robbins) feels that she's well past her expiration date; a nuisance that prevents him from fully starting over with someone younger and prettier (enter Fisher). Aniston plays resentfulness and fear with considerable nuance, and gets even better once she's been kidnapped and begins to make the startling realization that Louis really appeals to her. He may be a criminal, but he's polite, thoughtful and holds himself to a certain set of behavioral standards, which is more than can be said for her loutish husband. Aniston's low-key scenes with Hawkes are among the film's best, as two people we've grown to like talk in circles around their feelings.

The twisty, plot-driven side of the film isn't exactly revelatory, but it's consistently fun thanks to the snappy dialogue and engaging characters. Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) does solid work as the neighbor who secretly pines after Mickey, and Mark Boone, Jr. (Sons of Anarchy) essays a neo-Nazi with a penchant for voyeurism (lifestyle choices which bother Louis and amuse Ordell). Bey and Hawkes have an easy rapport together which feels thoroughly convincing – they're charming, and you get the sense they're mostly harmless despite their violent threats. Fisher gets quite a few of the snappiest lines as Melanie, and the way Ordell quietly marvels at her serves as a quietly amusing prelude to their more tempestuous relationship in the years to come. The whole affair concludes with a satisfactorily amusing little punchline – a smile-inducing little button to wrap up a smile-inducing little movie. It's no Jackie Brown, but well-acted, smart and more or less as much fun as reading a Leonard novel on a breezy afternoon. That's enough for me.

Life of Crime

Rating:★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2014