In an attempt to be complementary, but at the same time seem unintentionally inconsiderate, I enjoyed Life of Crime because it lacked a notable visionary’s presence. It didn’t feel the need to impress the audience with any sort of pizazz. It has a solid story, an array of interesting people ranging from low-lifes to the pompous rich, and a good time period to reference through lavish art direction and a sensational score.
With a lot of these crime comedies, a filmmaker is usually determined to slather their own stamp on just about every frame. The genre is vulnerable to these snafus because pretty much anyone would want to take a collection of manipulative characters and see how they live within a particular energy that filmmaker can bring to the table. The admirable yet restless David O. Russell and his award winning American Hustle is the most recent example.
Some directors can get drunk on power, however, and end up overloading the film with visual finesse. Soon enough, the style is trumping and smothering the substance behind the illegal activities and those brave characters willing to execute the plots.
Daniel Schechter directed this Elmore Leonard adaptation. Leonard also co-wrote the screenplay with Schechter. The filmmaker is relatively a no-namer compared to someone like Quentin Tarantino, who took on the duties of bringing Leonard’s Jackie Brown to the big screen.
Still settling into his feature film career, Schechter doesn’t have distinct flare just yet. It’s a rare case where being a blank slate benefits a movie. He lets the story breathe and allows his talented cast to rightfully flesh out their own curious, strange roles.
Life of Crime’s story consists of two pals (John Hawkes and Yasiin “Mos Def” Bey) kidnapping a well off socialite, Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston). The loveless husband of the victim (Tim Robbins) is disinterested in paying the pricey ransom, and his younger mistress (Isla Fisher) – who he’s been cheating with and has even less to lose – sees this as a game of wit. That is, until secrets and property are put at risk.
There’s also a subplot featuring a family friend (Marshall Taylor played by a wonderfully moustached Will Forte) being tangled up in his own shady snooping as he tries to cover up his mess after attempting to woo Mickey moments before her kidnapping.
Life of Crime earns its merit badge in macabre comedy. Schechter finds a nice way to pitch dark comedy without committing himself to seriously grim stuff. It may not have the pitch black bite that most dark comedies strive for, but the filmmaker doesn’t need to delve into decrepit areas devoid of morales to get a laugh.
The kidnappers mean serious business, but are likeable to an extent that you want to hear what they have to say. We despise their criminal racist cohort Richard (played by Mark Boone Junior), but Bey’s explanation describing Dick’s selective prejudice is one of the many moments where the the movie finds a standalone voice. And, it’s well written dialogue to boot.
I don’t, however, entirely buy the romantic chemistry that brews between the characters. Then again, that remains a tricky leap of faith that has yet to read believable on screen. If Life of Crime is having trouble and a Canadian indie like Random Acts of Romance can’t pull it off either, is this a developmental option that should abandon the movies altogether?
Schechter may have been able to make the chemistry plausible if he had a few more scenes focusing on intimacy instead of rushing it. I wouldn’t have minded waiting around an extra ten minutes if it meant the film pulling this trick off. Maybe Leonard is hiding those moments in his original work.
The twists are cunning, and we have fun watching others manipulate circumstances to their favour. It’s a film with grade-A performances to match the adventure, including strong work from Aniston and a grimy turn from Robbins. But, I think I had the most joy following Forte as he suspiciously hides the truth and sweats like he’s running a 400-metre dash.
Daniel Schechter’s film will undoubtably be compared to the works of the Coen Brothers. Mostly because it’s a unique concoction of humour and tragedy, making it this year’s Fargo. Though the Coens are remarkable filmmakers, I know a lot of their recent films have alienated movie goers. I happily recommend Life of Crime to those who have felt that way about the off-beat filmmakers. Schechter’s movie has everything those other films have, only this one is more accessible and – wisely – not as violent or graphic.