Life of Crime is an aptly titled crime dramedy based on The Switch, a novel by the late Elmore Leonard whose comically dark prose has inspired other noir films like Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. It's a slow burning pot boiler but one that simmers with sure-fisted wit, eclectic style and filled with the type of tension that stretches but never snaps.
Written for the screen and directed by Daniel Schechter, this black comedy begins with two petty criminals plotting to kidnap Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the trophy wife of Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) a corrupt businessman who has amassed a fortune by evading tax authorities. Having done their homework on Frank and how much money is stashed away in a tax-free Bahamas bank, Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Mos Def) are the aforementioned crooks who think they have hatched the perfect plan – hold the wife ransom in exchange for the husband's ill-gotten wealth. But unknown to these misdemeanors, Frank has no intention of getting his wife back. Worst of all, Frank's got a hot little mistress (Isla Fisher as Melanie) who has a plan of her own but one that could elevate her status from a gold digger to the new Mrs. Dawson.
Set in the late 1970s Detroit, Life of Crime is potentially familiar in swagger to last year's multi-Oscar nominated American Hustle. Even so, I suspect Schechter has intended for a deeper narration – try homage to the Coen Brothers' acclaimed masterpiece, Fargo. But where those films excelled in authentic storytelling prowess, Life of Crime is a low budget film that seems to be content with a medley of delicious dialogue from improvised characters. From Melanie and Frank to fumbling crooks with terrific lines, spunky characterization works like the unwrapping of a multilayered gift where you get to see what's on the inside at the very end. Mickey is no exception either, going from a beaten-down and delusional housewife to a survivalist with vivacious insight. This is also where Aniston strides further than any of her previous roles and is definitely one of her best performances to date. Also thrown in for kicks are two of Leonard's oddball characters – a neo-Nazi gun nut played by Mark Boone Junior and Will Forte as a weirdo who has the hots for Mickey – both ambiguous characters whose inclusion adds humour but also detracts from the main plot.
For a small scale crime thriller and Schechter's third foray as a director, Life of Crime may not be a very good screen adaptation but where it struggles in its dwindling screenplay, it makes up with an ensemble cast that turns out to be the film's saving grace. Perhaps Tarantino would have done a better job, especially with a montage ending that seems to suggest that the story has only just begun. Then again, that film would have been and entirely different cat and mouse game.