A fitting memorial to Elmore Leonard (who died last month and is an executive producer here), “Life of Crime” reps one of the most faithful of the many adaptations of the author’s work, in this case 1978’s “The Switch.” This sly, cleverly plotted caper features John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) as low-end criminals who hatch a plan to kidnap a Detroit millionaire’s wife for ransom. With Jennifer Aniston the only major marquee name, director-scenarist Daniel Schechter’s modest but deft and enjoyable picture will need careful marketing to approach the returns of glossier Leonard-derived films like “Get Shorty.” Good reviews and word of mouth should help.
Looking for any means to get ahead in the depressed Motor City of the late ’70s, Ordell Robbie (Bey) has sniffed around and discovered that successful suburban businessman Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) in fact has less-than-legal additional assets he’s secreted away in the Bahamas, along with much younger mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher); his trophy wife, Mickey (Aniston), whom he bullies and browbeats, has no knowledge of his illicit activities.
Ordell and partner Louis (John Hawkes) figure they’ll abduct Mrs. Dawson while her hubby is at a Bahaman “business meeting” and their already world-weary son (Charlie Tahan) is off to tennis camp. They employ Richard (Mark Boone Jr.), a surly slob with a Nazi fetish and an extensive firearm collection, to do some dirty work and provide a place to stow their captive. When Louis expresses reservations about this goon’s overt racism, among other disturbing traits, Ordell shrugs, “He’s so dumb it’s adorable.”
All goes more or less according to plan, despite an inconvenient surprise visit during the actual abduction from a country-club friend, Marshall (Will Forte), who has the hots for Mickey. But what she and the culprits don’t know is that crass Frank has just filed divorce papers. Ergo, when Ordell and Louis threaten “you’ll never see your wife again” unless they get $1 million, their target — not to mention his calculating new squeeze — spy an ideal opportunity to get rid of last year’s spouse model without having to pay alimony.
Schechter (who previously directed the lower-profile “Goodbye Baby” and “Supporting Characters”) eschews flash for a gritty, realistic feel that weaves absurdism and jokes into the general sad-sack-’70s atmosphere rather than punching them across. The period’s tackier sides are amply represented in the design contributions (and notably the Newton Brothers’ original score, which could pass for a mid-Me Decade B-movies) without reducing the pic to campy retro caricature.
Flavorful yet brisk like the book, “Life of Crime” loses some of its source material’s character development as well as a few minor narrative pieces (the dialogue remains nearly all Leonard’s), but the excellent casting fills in any resulting gaps well enough. Hawkes gets to sport his lesser-noted affable side as the essentially sweet-natured Louis, while Bey is aces as his wry, loose yet colder-blooded accomplice. Robbins and Boone are perfect as two very different kinds of sleazeballs, and Fisher amusingly underplays a highly pragmatic, not-so-dumb bimbo whose loyalties are as flexible as her repertoire of sexual positions. Last but far from least, Aniston is terrific in a more seriocomic part than usual as a dissatisfied upscale wife who’s kept up appearances for the sake of convention and her son, but who increasingly turns misfortune to her own advantage.
Savvy production (with Connecticut and Miami locations subbing for Detroit and Bahamas) hews to the feel of inexpensive ’70s caper cinema, stopping short of self-conscious imitation. No such restraint applies, however, to the array of cheesy Top 40 hits and lounge tracks that music supervisor Laura Katz needle-drops onto the soundtrack to humorous effect.