By James Kenney. Modified from its originally publication by Queens Free Press.
If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please. —Epicetitus
Life of Crime, a small 2014 release that was dropped into a few theaters the same day it appeared on Video on Demand, is the kind of movie I’m partial to, a character-based genre fiction that offers a bit of mayhem, some crafty dialogue, a few laughs, and a nibble of suspense. Unlike a high-profile release from around the same time, Focus, which focuses on aggressively charming, stunning-looking criminals who live the High Life, Life of Crime centers on a cluster of misfits who stumble and bluff their way through a half-thought-out crime, the snatching of trophy wife Jennifer Aniston from boorish husband Tim Robbins. Things don’t go as they planned, as it turns out Robbins is convinced by his mistress, Isla Fischer, that they’re doing him a favor in taking his wife. He declines to pay, and the kidnappers are stuck with the wife.
The late Elmore Leonard is very much missed. Watching this, I was immediately struck by its quirky characterizations and animated dialogue, unaware that the film was based on Leonard’s novel The Switch, which I haven’t read. Leonard always found a way to make his hoods human, and Life of Crime does a better job than some higher profile Leonard film releases in realizing the air of humor and menace that his best crime novels have, although as a thriller the film never works up much suspense. While the three hoods, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) as the relative brainpower, John Hawkes as one of society’s also-rans (but with heart), and Mark Boone Junior as the unbalanced cretin, don’t match Leonard’s depraved sociopathic abductors found in John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (available on home video from Kino Lorber), they are a humorously acrimonious bunch of misfits finding their easy score is anything but easy.
Jennifer Aniston is a fine actress, often underrated because of her television success, often milquetoast film projects, and constant presence in the gossip headlines. She craftily holds the two worlds of the film together, and underplays her part effectively, as a women a bit behind the curve who is always observing those around her and then basing her next move on the new information she’s processed.
The whole film is underplayed, which is its charm and its limitation, but if the film worked too hard to address its limitations it would lose its charm. Life of Crime takes a fairly restrained tone towards the mayhem, its humor tickling you on the elbow rather than jabbing you in the eye. I don’t want to overpraise Life of Crime, but its quiet qualities and eccentricity is a panacea to the aggressive manipulations of Big Time Hollywood’s idea of casual caper fun, the aforementioned Focus. This loose return to the ramshackle character-based caper films of the 70s, such as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Silver Bears, gets the little things right, although the plot lacks momentum and the climax has no real punch. Talented young director Daniel Schechter gives more attention to the characters than to the caper; the calm humor is appealing, but indeed the stakes never really feel intensified at moments they probably should.
But a willing, strongly talented cast responds to Schechter’s underplayed hand and the film thankfully avoids overcooked sentiment for some lightly seasoned emotion in later sequences as some of Aniston’s captors grow more affectionate to her than others and she realizes her husband has no use for her at all. Life of Crime is worth seeking out; as Ray Bradbury once wrote, “I never in my life argued with a piece of cake or a bowl of ice cream”; Crime is far too amiable to work up any effort to bicker with it.