Crime and Punishment

Film adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels are generally great ("Jackie Brown") or terrible ("The Big Bounce"); guess which category "Life of Crime" falls into?

"Life of Crime," a film based on the 1978 Elmore Leonard novel "The Switch," finally makes it to the screen in rather drab fashion long after an attempt to adapt it nearly 30 years ago.

The film features a kidnapping plot that has a rich wife named Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston) being taken hostage while philandering husband Frank (Tim Robbins) doesn't really care. The plan to make the movie in the '80s was scrapped when "Ruthless People," a similarly plotted movie starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler, went into production.

In the interim, Quentin Tarantino adapted "Rum Punch" to the big screen back in '97 and renamed it "Jackie Brown." "Jackie Brown" featured characters that also appear in "Life of Crime." The kidnappers in "Life of Crime," Ordell Robbie (Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro respectively in "Jackie Brown." Isla Fisher also appears as Frank's mistress, Melanie, a character portrayed by Bridget Fonda in "Jackie Brown."

I share this trivia about "Life of Crime" because it is far more interesting than anything that happens in the actual movie.

Unlike some of the more successful Elmore Leonard film adaptations of the past, like "Get Shorty" (1995), "Jackie Brown" (1997) and "Out of Sight" (1998), "Life of Crime" is lacking cleverness, laughs or even a discernible pulse. It's a mostly flat affair boasting a decent cast trying to do their best with a bland script.

Unlike "Jackie Brown," which was set in the late '90s, writer-director Daniel Schechter opts to make "Life of Crime" a period piece set in the '70s. He gives his movie a washed out look to go along with its humorless dialogue, and the pacing of this film is at times frustratingly slow and sloppy. It's less than two hours, but it feels like more than three.

Nothing happens in this movie that feels new or inspired. The kidnappers take Mickey, they find out they don't have the greatest of chances in getting the requested ransom because the husband is a jerk, and that's it. There's a side plot involving a guy named Marshall (Will Forte) trying to have an affair with Mickey that is underdeveloped. Mark Boone Junior shows up as a kidnapping accomplice who is a neo-Nazi. His character is probably supposed to add some kind of dark comic flavor, but he's just ugly and unpleasant.

Aniston, one of the more misused actresses in Hollywood, is given the thankless task of acting worried and tired throughout the movie. None of her comedic chops are called upon, and one gets a true sense that she was left out in the wilderness by her director. She seems lost in this movie, uncertain of its tone or purpose.

Of all the performers, it is Mos Def who seems the most comfortable in his role. He occupies the few passages of the movie that pop and crackle with Leonard's style. Hawkes, a reliable actor, unfortunately joins Aniston in the mostly lost department. Fisher, like Def, manages to make her scenes somewhat worth watching. At one point, the Def and Fisher characters are teaming up, which made me wish the whole film was just about them.

You get the requisite, unflattering period clothes and '70s music on the soundtrack. Granted, the '70s could provide a cool musical backdrop, but Schechter and friends choose such duds as "Let Your Love Flow" and "Don't Pull Your Love." If any soundtrack was screaming for a nice, upbeat '70s track by The Kinks or The Who, it would be this one.

"Life of Crime" seems to entirely miss the point and spirit of its source material. Or, perhaps, it's just getting unjustly compared to work by the likes of Tarantino and Barry Sonnenfeld by yours truly. Either way, I was pretty bored watching it.

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