It took a long time for the works of breezily comedic crime novelist Elmore Leonard to be properly translated on screen. After an endless stream of misconceived and overly dour adaptations, the 90s brought audiences the near perfect trifecta in the forms of Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight. Part of it was timing, as the 90s were an age of the talky crime comedy that Leonard pioneered. Part of it was just the fact that his properties finally fell into the hands of filmmakers like Barry Sonnenfeld, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh who loved his writing and knew how to translate it to the screen. Yet for some reason the golden age of Elmore Leonard movies only lasted for only three titles and the crappy adaptations returned with the forgettable likes of Be Cool, The Big Bounce, and Freaky Deaky. Thankfully, Leonard was able to supervise the TV series Justified before he passed away to ensure audiences got one more decent blast of his writing. And now, almost on a year to the day after the author’s death we’ve gotten one more in Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime.
Within a few minutes of the film starting, fans of Leonard should recognize the character names Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, as they were vividly brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown. Here, Mos Def and John Hawkes more than capably slip into the roles, and since writer/director Daniel Schechter (Supporting Characters) gives his film a 70s setting, the movie functions as an unofficial prequel. It’s subtlety done and only really registers if you’re looking for connections, but that makes this Elmore Leonard adaptation rather special as it not only vividly recreates the author’s writing, but also ties into possibly the greatest film based on his work.
In Life of Crime, Ordell (Def) and Louis (Hawkes) are in the early days of their hustling crime careers. The duo decide to kidnap of the beleaguered wife (Jennifer Aniston) of a crooked real-estate developer (Tim Robbins). It all seems simple enough, but then things inevitably go wrong and get interesting. First up, the duo didn’t anticipate that Aniston’s awkward suitor (the always delightful Will Forte) would show up mid-kidnapping in an attempted champignon seduction. Then they underestimate the insanity of their neo-nazi partner (Mark Boon Junior), who was theoretically supposed to look after Aniston. Worst of all, the duo never counted on just what a prick Robbins’ character turns out to be, and when they contact him demanding a ransom, his trophy tail (Isla Fisher) manages to talk him out of payment. Ordell and Louis aren’t murderers, and one of them even starts developing serious feelings for Aniston. Improvisation will be necessary, and that leads to the kind of bumbling criminal activity and fast talk that Elmore Leonard does so well.
As usual in a proper Leonard flick, the performances carry the film with Def and Hawkes making minor nods to their characters Jackie Brown future while leaving their own stamp on these clueless kidnappers. They’re such a charming team that there’s never much of a threat when they’re on screen and thankfully that’s the point. These aren’t scary cons just yet, they’re wannabes with consciences. The element of danger comes in the form of Junior’s hysterical neo-Nazi who practically steals the movie while sling-shotting between feeling like a wounded puppy to a psychotic killer throughout (often within the same scene). Robbins is also amusingly sleazy in a way he does well, Forte is as hilarious as always in a few brief scenes, and Fisher handles her Leonard femme fatale role with ease. The only bum note in the cast is Aniston, and even then it’s not as if her performance is gratingly awful. She’s just got too much celebrity baggage and sheen to play a burned out, average woman at this point.
The film is essentially a gentle comedy with the occasional burst of violence. The sadness and tragedy that flavors Leonard’s best work is missing, but Schechter’s film bounces along with enough energy and joy to prevent that from being much of a problem. It does have to be said that it makes the movie feel like a trifle, which is absolutely fine if that’s all you want. However, I could see some viewers muttering, “that’s it?” once the credits roll. It’s not a particularly fast paced romp, more of an observational crime yarn that unfolds with the quirky pacing of life. Schechter has more transcribed the book onto film rather than really adapting it for a new medium. It’s a film pretty much exclusively for those whose eyes light up when they see Leonard’s name on a project. Not a massive audience to be sure, but one that should eat up the gentle charms of Life of Crime and feel hungry for more.