Friday, August 29, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: LIFE OF CRIME (2014)

(US/United Arab Emirates - 2014)

Written and directed by Daniel Schechter. Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, yasiin bey, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior, Kevin Corrigan, Clea Lewis, Charlie Tahan, Kofi Boakye, Nathan Purdee. (R, 100 mins)

For nearly 60 years, Hollywood's been adapting the novels and stories of the great crime and western writer Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) with varying degrees of success and, more often than not, the dismissive derision of the author himself. Leonard understood that film was a different medium--he also wrote screenplays for films like JOE KIDD (1972) and MR. MAJESTYK (1974)--and that changes were sometimes necessary. While he had a hard time abiding those changes--even an exemplary adaptation like John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP (1986) was criticized by Leonard simply because the filmmakers moved the setting from Detroit to Los Angeles--he would state numerous times in interviews over the years that "getting paid is the most important thing."  The mid '90s saw a major cinematic resurgence of interest in Leonard's work, with Barry Sonnenfeld's GET SHORTY (1995), Quentin Tarantino's Rum Punch adaptation JACKIE BROWN (1997), and Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998) setting the standard of Leonard-done-right for the big screen (there was also Paul Schrader's little-seen and much less successful 1997 adaptation of TOUCH, based on an atypical Leonard novel and primarily remembered, if at all, for Dave Grohl composing the score). More recently, Leonard's work has been the basis of the acclaimed FX series JUSTIFIED, with Timothy Olyphant as recurring Leonard character Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens. But for every film version that satisfied Leonard, there were numerous others--THE AMBASSADOR (1985), an adaptation of 52 Pick-Up that had nothing whatsoever to do with 52 Pick-Up, the Showtime movie PRONTO (1997), featuring James Le Gros in an early incarnation of Raylan Givens, and the short-lived 1998 ABC series MAXIMUM BOB, or troubled productions like Burt Reynolds' STICK (1985), Abel Ferrara's CAT CHASER (1989), or John Madden's KILLSHOT, released in 2009 after four years on the shelf--that left him sour on Hollywood. Leonard died shortly after production wrapped on LIFE OF CRIME, based on his 1978 novel The Switch. While he never got to see the completed film, he was shown snippets of scenes and, by all accounts, was pleased with what he saw, both as the writer of the source novel and as a co-producer on the film.

Leonard was always a master storyteller who cut to the chase, direct and unpretentious and uninterested in making grand artistic statements. That's what writer/director Daniel Schechter goes for here, but the results are frequently as flat as the generic retitling. As demonstrated by guys like Frankenheimer, Sonnenfeld, Tarantino, and Soderbergh, Leonard adaptations work best when a gifted filmmaker is able to put their unique stamp on the material. Of course, being a different medium, that's where deviations may occur. Schechter's approach involves being slavishly devoted to Leonard by pretty much putting the book in script form. While that may explain why Leonard was so happy with what he saw, it doesn't make for a particularly thrilling thriller. Schechter brings no style or personality to the proceedings other than a couple of minor nods to JACKIE BROWN, as both films feature the lowlife trio of Ordell Robbie, Louis Gara, and Melanie Ralston, recurring characters in several Leonard novels. Played in JACKIE BROWN by, respectively, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda, the characters are seen here at an earlier time in their lives, with yasiin bey, formerly known as Mos Def, as Ordell, John Hawkes as Louis, and Isla Fisher as Melanie. While LIFE OF CRIME isn't meant to be a direct prequel to JACKIE BROWN, the Tarantino film was obviously studied by the actors, especially bey, who clearly bases his interpretation of Ordell on Jackson's performance. As LIFE opens, Ordell and Louis are planning the half-baked kidnapping of wealthy Detroit housewife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), with the intent of blackmailing her wealthy and corrupt businessman husband Frank (Tim Robbins, who stepped in when Dennis Quaid dropped out of the project) into paying a $1 million ransom. Holding Mickey captive at the home of their idiotic white supremacist cohort Richard (Mark Boone Junior), Ordell and Louis are shocked to learn that Frank has taken off to the Bahamas with his mistress Melanie (at this point in the timeline of Leonard's novels, they don't know her) and has just filed for divorce. He has no intention of paying the ransom and really doesn't care if he ever sees Mickey again. Of course, double crosses ensue as unplanned alliances form and Mickey finds herself unexpectedly bonding with Louis.

It's interesting to note that The Switch was originally set to be made way back in 1986 with Diane Keaton as Mickey, but it was cancelled during pre-production when 20th Century Fox execs deemed it too similar to the then-current box office hit RUTHLESS PEOPLE. LIFE OF CRIME has solid performances and it's interesting to see Hawkes as a younger, smarter, and much more assertive Louis than the beaten-down-by-life schlub De Niro played in JACKIE BROWN, but there's very little excitement or fun here. Schechter does a serviceable, workmanlike job at the helm and the whole film is efficiently assembled, but it's very low-energy and has little spark. It lacks the snap of GET SHORTY, JACKIE BROWN, and OUT OF SIGHT, and often feels like a costumed table read. There's nothing wrong with anything, and Hawkes and bey stand out while Will Forte has some amusing bits as a Dawson family friend who carries a torch for Mickey, but comparisons to JACKIE BROWN are unfortunately inevitable and Daniel Schechter is no Quentin Tarantino. Its biggest issue is its blandness, and that's not a word you typically use to describe anything connected to Elmore Leonard. Even the twists and turns are executed in the most perfunctory of fashions, and the film has the aura of a TV-movie with F-bombs. Budgeted at just $12 million--pocket change by today's standards--it's obviously a labor of love for some (Aniston is among the film's 27 credited producers), it's dedicated to Leonard, and it's nice to know that he enjoyed what little he saw, but other than a funny opening sequence and some well-done 1978 period detail throughout, this is really a pretty forgettable entry in the Leonard big-screen pantheon, about on the level of George Armitage's 2004 shrugger THE BIG BOUNCE. It's easy to see why Lionsgate is dumping it in limited release and on VOD. In the days of old, this would be the very definition of "Eh, just wait for it to come out on video."  It's by no means a bad movie, but...eh, just wait for it to turn up on Netflix Instant, or in Wal-Mart's $5 DVD bin, where you'll likely find it by Christmas.

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

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