Who doesn’t love a good Elmore Leonard novel or film adaptation? Certainly writer/director Daniel Schechter does, for with LIFE OF CRIME, an adaptation of Leonard’s “The Switch”, he delivers a film that is not only one of the most, if not the most, faithful to the source material of all the Leonard adaptations, but is true to the stylized dialogue and wit of the novel itself. LIFE OF A CRIME is as witty and wonderful on the big screen as on the page.
Mickey Dawson is the epitome of a trophy wife. Gorgeous and fabulous, her nails and hair are always perfect. Her clothing fashionable for the day, and expensive. Her home, impeccable. Her social manners of being engaging but never upstanding her husband, are flawless. Her husband - a jerk. Abusive, narcissistic, egomaniacal and at times, even cruel, Frank Dawson is the epitome of two-faced with his public persona beloved and his private one, despised yet tolerated by Mickey. A real-estate developer, it seems there’s also a bit of crooked larceny going on with Frank, something that attracts the attention of some two-bit low life and slightly bumbling criminals who see him as the Golden Goose.
The plan: Kidnap Mickey and hold her for $1 million ransom.
What goes wrong: Frank is in the Bahamas with his mistress Melanie and is serving Mickey with divorce papers. In other words, he’s not paying $1 million to get Mickey back. So, what’s a kidnapper and a hostage to do?
The result: Fun and funny thanks to Murphy’s Law and top-notch performances.
Tim Robbins is over-the-top hilarious as Frank, playing two sides of the coin as the insecure buffoon who is putty and childlike with an at-a-loss persona (definite mommy complex going on here) in the hands of Isla Fisher's Melanie yet demanding, drunk and offensive when playing the dutiful arrogant show-off husband to Aniston's Mickey. Robbins is delicious.
And speaking of delicious, Jennifer Aniston delivers one of the finest performances of her career as Mickey. For Aniston, it was a “no brainer” to get involved in LIFE OF CRIME, both as an actress as an Executive Producer. “I read the book and it was such a fun, wonderful story. I love how [Elmore Leonard] writes his characters. They’re all so interesting and detailed. Also, his bad guys aren’t the brightest, but yet they somehow always make it happen. They’re the most charming and they’re actually lovable. I also thought that Mickey has such a beautiful arc, and a powerful one in that time. For him to write that for a woman in the 70’s was pretty awesome.” Perfectly embracing the 70's period with hair, make-up, clothing and attitude (“[Basically] I just tried to rock the old Nancy Aniston [her mom] 1970’s look”), Aniston adds edges to Mickey that are not only warm, but strong and smart - a strength that we see develop fully thanks to strong chemistry between Mickey and John Hawkes' Louis. Louis' kindness is the trigger that starts the emotional arc for Mickey and I, for one, as I did with the book and now on screen, love the transformation. As Aniston describes it, “Pretty much Mickey was living in the Petrified Forest with Frank [Tim Robbins] and very repressed, emotionally abused, and had no way and didn’t even know how to make a move to get out of that jail. Oddly enough, the kidnapping is her ‘get out of jail free’ card. As the story progressed and her situation became more dire, that’s how she found that strength, like women do when faced with unimaginable circumstances.” Aniston owns the role.
When it comes to John Hawkes, kind and pragmatic and actually, honesty, are the watchwords that he brings to Louis. A very soft and affable performance from Hawkes that we haven't really seen before. Crediting Leonard’s source material and writer/director Schechter, Hawkes notes, “A lot of it’s on the page. A lot of it’s in the book and in Dan’s wonderful screenplay. But I was most interested in the relationship between Mickey and Louis. . .[O]ne thing I love about Louis is his grace through it all; that he’s not despondent. . .” Challenging for Hawkes was trying to “lay the character out in pieces” to give Louis a completeness with texture and layers. “I didn’t want to come on screen and for the audience to say ‘There’s a cuddly bad guy. There’s a lovable bad guy.’ It’s important for the story for us to worry about Mickey as well as that Louis needed to be a guy who felt like he was formidable, and he did have some darkness and a bit of a rough side to him early on.”
As co-kidnapper Ordell, yasiin bey aka Mos Def is his own kind of fun and a great devil-on-the-shoulder foil for Louis' conscience. The only performance that doesn't ring true for me, however, is Will Forte's Marshall. He actually makes Marshall more pervy than Mark Boone’s Richard (a third player in the kidnapping) and I was more unsettled watching his advances to Mickey than Richard's. Nice little comedic turn by Clea Lewis as Marshall's whiney wife Tyra.
Writer/director Schechter does a wonderful job of weaving Leonard's double entendre absurdity of dialogue within the script while developing visuals that capture and compliment without turning the film or the characters (but for “Richard” with the whole pervy Nazi obsession which is an absolute hoot) into a caricature or mockery, much credit for which goes to the fact that Schechter felt Leonard’s novel “felt really adaptable. It felt like a movie as I was reading it. I could see it in my eye. And it felt like the epitome of what he does. There’s a very basic crime at the heart of it, and then the characters are what I find super fascinating about the story and how they bump up against each other and their motives.” Schechter keeps the film moving at a fast-paced clip, allowing the performances to breathe while bathed in some wonderful light, bright white lighting by cinematographer Eric Edwards. The entire tonal bandwidth has the essence of wearing a smile with a slight knowing smirk. White natural lighting gives us the idea that everything is out in the open yet, as the story moves forward, we find that even in the light of day, secrets can be found hiding right in front of your face. Delightful!
Although some of the characters are not as fleshed out in backstory on film as in the book, the stellar performances more than provide the visual backstory so a fan of the book will never feel out of place or that "something is missing" when watching the film. The performances are rich, textured, flavorful and beyond fun, all lending to an engaging humorous effect.
One of the great things about LIFE OF A CRIME is that our criminals do have a code, a sense of ethics, a conscience, and a sense of right and wrong, all of which just feed the comedy and propel the red herrings and twists and turns of the story, epitomizing "Murphy's Law" at every turn. But for the buffoonish pervert Richard, you actually feel empathy and sympathy and at various moments, find yourself rooting for the "bad guys". Hell, everyone has a little bit of larceny in them ...... as we see in the ultimate twist final scene, which had me rolling with laughter.
Production values are top notch, starting with Edwards’ cinematography. From the Dawson house (which is stunning in its decor and design thanks to production designer Inbal Weinberg) with the use of natural light, ample windows (very metaphoric for Frank wanting the world to see him in all his glory and to show off) give and open airy, easy breezy feel that carries through to the balcony scenes of Fisher's Melanie in Freeport. Lighting and lensing never get heavy or weigh us down. Notable is that even a bathroom scene in Richard's house where Mickey is being held hostage, even the bathroom has large window continuing that bright, white on white, easy breezy feel. Wonderful contrast to the darker umbered and shadowed hostage bedroom, yet even that has a balance with the light pink curlers and crystal perfume bottles. Clean and unfettered lensing lets you focus on the twisty story and the performances.
I would be remiss not to mention Jennifer Aniston in her capacity as Executive Producer. This is her bailiwick. Several years ago when she stepped into the producer’s chair with a very hands on approach with the movie “Management”, I told her then she has a real gift and knack for development and delivery. Again with the comedy “The Switch” (which is why the Leonard adaptation here had to have a different title) her ethics and style were everywhere and now with LIFE OF CRIME, her keen eye is again evident with casting, below the line artisans and the film’s overall vision and adherence to theme. Aniston is the kind of producer we hope to be and/or want to have.
Original score by the Newton Brothers is marvelous as are the actual vintage 70's tracks popping up throughout the film. While no "Mix Tape 1" from "Guardians of the Galaxy", the tracks are still period perfect and fun, adding their own level of tongue-in-cheek cheese to the proceedings!
It would be criminal for folks to not see LIFE OF CRIME!
Written and Directed by Daniel Schechter based on the novel “The Switch” by Elmore Leonard
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, yasiin bey aka Mos Def
LIFE OF CRIME breaks into theatres on August 29th