Tuesday, September 2, 2014

'Life of Crime' (2014) directed by Daniel Schechter

Poor Life of Crime.  It never really stood a chance.  You adapt an Elmore Leonard twisty-turny tale of witty criminals, pack it with awful haircuts and fashion and put together a decent cast.  Things are looking up!  Then, once the movie is in the can the studio sits on it and waits for a suitable release date.  And waits.  And waits...

While the film goes unseen along comes American Hustle, which covers the exact thematic, tonal and aesthetic territory to far superior effect. And so we come to September 2014, the film being gently snuck into theatres for a short run before finding its natural in the bargain DVD bucket. Don't get me wrong, Life of Crime most definitely isn't some hidden gem, but it's certainly worthy of a smidge of sympathy.

The movie revolves around petty thieves Ordell (Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes) deciding to climb up the criminal food chain by moving into kidnapping.  Their target: Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), trophy wife to property magnate Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins).  While he's away on business in the Bahamas they intend to snatch her, imprison her in a Neo-Nazi co-conspirator's spare room and ransom her back to him for a princely $1 million.  

Predictably, it all goes a bit wrong.  There's a faintly Coen-esque quality to this farce, the narrative propelled by a series of misunderstandings, coincidences and plain old stupidity. The kidnapper's biggest problem is that Frank Dawson doesn't particularly want his wife back.  He's been having an affair with the sexy and amoral Melanie (Isla Fisher), and had arranged to have his wife served with divorce papers.  

With no money forthcoming the kidnappers bicker amongst themselves, trying to work out how to best squeeze some money out of their investment.  Meanwhile Mickey, trapped in a miserable marriage, doesn't seem to mind being kidnapped too much, and is forming a close bond with one of the kidnappers.  And so not only do they kidnap Mickey, they also, just perhaps kidnap... her heart?

There's nothing obviously wrong with this loosely knotted tale of double-crossing, but the end result is leaden and devoid of tension. Nobody, not the criminals, the victims, the police or the peripheral characters really displays much passion about what's happening, and this lack of interest leaches right through the screen and infects the audience.  If they don't give a shit, why should we?

Mos Def does a lot of half-hearted shrugging in this.
The prime offender is, unfortunately, Jennifer Aniston.  While it's nice to see her appearing in a film whose title isn't in bright red sans-serif capitals, she just doesn't have the range for this material.  In the initial scenes she's decent enough as a put upon trophy wife, but once she's kidnapped she seems less terrified and more blase, reverting to a Rachel Greenish baseline ironic distance.  Even when she overhears her kidnappers arguing whether they should chop off her fingers she appears more annoyed than terrified.

It feels a bit unfair to lay too much blame at Aniston's door, especially given that the core of the movie shows a woman being liberated from unhappiness by forced abduction and threats of rape.  It's... well, it's an interesting perspective on character development, and in better hands might produce something worthwhile.  In Life of Crime it's fumbled and  half baked, the message apparently (intentional or otherwise) is that being kidnapped and imprisoned can be a totally fun and positive life experience.

Further sucking out any excitement is that there's no proper villain in the film, which means there's no danger whatsoever.  Our criminals are all loveable rogues rather than baddies, which extends to the bizarre bumbling comedy Neo-Nazi, portrayed as a goofy Swastika-loving doofus.  

The 'real' villain is the despicable husband, with Tim Robbins apparently taking direct cues from 'Bad Future Biff Tannen' in Back to the Future Part II.  But even he's a moronic figure of fun, Robbins almost going pantomime-broad with this greasy, horny middle-aged lothario.  What remains is the extraneous character played by Will Forte who spends the entirety of the film wandering around with a gormless expression on his face not doing anything.

Inaction is the default mode for these characters, all of whom act like they'd rather be anywhere else than involved in a crime caper.  This means that even at a svelte 98 minute run-time the film quickly runs out of steam, eventually shuddering to a complete halt as the credits roll mid-scene with nothing resolved.

It's odd.  The bones of a good film are here.  There's a decent fetishisation of the 1970s; all clashing patterns, plaid, lots of smoking and stupid haircuts, and there's the usual soundtrack of cool, guitar-led 70s rock.  The cast is all capable of turning in above average performances and while it's not going to turn any heads with stylish cinematography, it's certainly not a markedly ugly film.  

But there's a palpable lack of passion, as if everyone involved has their next project in mind.  This isn't a crime against cinema, but the best I can say about Life of Crime is that it exists, it's pretty short and doesn't ask a great deal of the audience.


Life of Crime is released 5th September.

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