Elmore Leonard rides again

Life of Crime is the latest all-star adaptation of the novelist’s work, one that tries hard to capture his balance of brutality, poetry and the rhythms of everyday life.


yasiiin bey, John Hawkes and Jennifer Aniston

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard has been adapted to the screen so many times, he damn near defined a style of loosey-goosey silver-screen crime flick. (It would probably be more accurate to say he defined Quentin Tarantino’s style, whose imitators then went on to run the genre into the ground.) Leonard, who passed away last year at age 87, wrote works that were made into more than 30 movies, yet only a handful of them have actually managed to be good representations of the man’s style (not to mention good movies in general).

Steven Soderbergh managed it with Out of Sight; Tarantino managed it despite making significant changes in Jackie Brown, and the television show Justified continues to pull it off every year. With such a high percentage of disappointing (and sometimes outright terrible) efforts, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that Daniel Schechter (who comes directly from the world of New York independent comedies) doesn’t fully deliver on the promise inherent in Life of Crime — but he does a half-decent job.

Ordell (yasiin bey, aka Mos Def) and Louie (John Hawkes) are two-bit criminals who hatch a seemingly foolproof plan: they’re going to kidnap Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a crooked real estate magnate (Tim Robbins) and hold her up for a ransom that they know the man has stashed in an overseas bank account. Things quickly get shitty when it’s revealed that Mickey’s husband has already served her with divorce papers and eloped with his new squeeze (Isla Fisher) and therefore probably hasn’t got much to lose if he doesn’t pay the ransom. Add a Nazi-loving peeping tom accomplice (Mark Boone Junior) and a hapless patsy (Will Forte) who happened to be coming over to the apartment to seduce Mickey when the kidnapping happened and, baby, you got a stew going.

Most Leonard adaptations falter on tone: his writing isn’t particularly flowery but he finds a balance between brutality, poetry and the rhythms of everyday life that’s proven pretty hard to convey on-screen. Most adaptations either turn into shaggy, formless all-star chill sessions (The Big Bounce, Be Cool) or dour, slate-grey thrillers (Killshot). Schetcher extends himself in a little bit of both, getting amiably slack, comfortable performances from his cast but grounding the macabre and violent a little too much. Horrible things should and do happen in this world, but sequences like the one where the ogre-like Boone Junior forces himself upon Aniston are much darker and unpleasant than the film that surrounds them. While the story takes an interesting twist by putting all the power in the hands of its female protagonists while the men are busy swinging their dicks around, it severely lacks the drive that’s supposed to propel a crime thriller, even one as chill as this one.

Life of Crime is at its core what the aforementioned Tarantino would call a “hangout” movie that’s nevertheless tied to a fairly intricate series of criminal machinations. Thankfully, Schechter has the support of a solid cast of hanger-outers, especially with bey and Hawkes (reprising, or prequelling, the roles held by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro in Jackie Brown) anchoring the film with their good-natured, charismatic characterizations.  Aniston doesn’t exactly deliver unrecognizable character work, but she acquits herself rather well with the role nonetheless.

Elmore Leonard wrote cinematically; he wrote books that seemed like such no-brainers on the big screen that they could almost never live up to that promise. Tellingly, few have. Life of Crime isn’t a bad movie — it’s got engaging performances and an amiable sense of humour that makes it enjoyable even when the film seems to be treading water. It feels resolutely unambitious, though, as if the writing on the novel page was enough to guide the film. Can’t blame Schechter for coming up short, though — he wouldn’t be the first. ■

 Life of Crime opens in theatres today