Unjustified: Elmore Leonard deserves better flicks than Life of Crime

Jennifer Aniston in Life of Crime.
Jennifer Aniston in Life of Crime. © 2014 - Roadside Attractions.

Unjustified: Elmore Leonard deserves better flicks than Life of Crime

Life of Crime
Written and directed by Daniel Schechter.
Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Yasiin Bey, Tim Robbins, Will Forte and Mark Boone Junior.
Opens Friday, August 29, at multiple locations.

Weep at another whiff of an Elmore Leonard adaptation, one that nails down neither the peppery laughs nor the street-crime desperation that are key to the writer's work. Instead, the comedy's too broad to take the characters seriously, and the vibe is breezily aimless, a mistake in a story about anxious waiting. The Switch, the Leonard tale getting the movie-star makeover, concerns a couple hoods' kidnapping of a rich crook's wife — but come to find out the crook's just served her with papers and prefers that she be kidnapped. Jennifer Aniston is the wife, and she's almost worth the ticket price — she wields that endlessly expressive face of hers to evince fear, confusion, amusement, and, annoyance, often all at once. (Her filmy '70s blouses suggest someone should build an American Hustle around her.)

Her character's holed up in the stinking home of a cartoonish neo-Nazi, where kidnappers (John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey) try to sweat bucks out of her husband (Tim Robbins), who's at the beach with his mistress (Isla Fisher) and won't return the kidnappers' calls. A few strong, stinging moments from Aniston aside, the film's often slack, and key scenes are AWOL: Time passes in fits, tension never mounts, and once the double crosses start, we just have to take the movie's word for it that somewhere in there, Character B and Character C have discovered something worth trusting in one another.

Hawkes and Bey are strong and likable presences, but the movie never puts the screws to them. You can tell from the first reels that they'll eventually be at odds with that white supremacist (Mark Boone Junior), a piggish rapist whose decor is all filth and swastikas. It's hard not to wonder: Why should we care about criminals dumb enough to throw in with this man-pile? (Leonard makes it clear that his losers have no other choice; the movie just asks us to accept it.) Since his choice of a partner is as bad as her choice of a husband, it's no surprise that Hawkes' character inevitably stirs some minor longing from Aniston's, and the attraction is nicely underplayed. She's never better than when looking perplexed but aroused at the heart's unlikely stirring — still, by the end, like many of the characters here, they seem to share a bond the movie hasn't bothered to show us.

Robbins is funny as a golden boy gone to pot but convinced he's still golden, but he vanishes for long stretches. That facilitates some of those third-act double crosses, but like too much of what makes it to the screen in Life of Crime it's weirdly under-motivated. Robbins' character isn't mysteriously gone; he's just absent, a hole in the movie. Dispiritingly, it's all set in Detroit in the '70s, and the only female black character who is given a name is on-screen for less than 30 seconds, her breasts exposed for a sight gag about "big tittays."

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