John Hawkes looks over his kindappee Jennifer Aniston in "Life of Crime." Barry Wetcher
‘Life of Crime’ Director: Daniel Schechter Stars: Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
Elmore Leonard is no stranger to movie adaptations, but how many actually get his world right? Films like “Get Shorty” and “Killshot” and even parts of “Jackie Brown” stress the violence and the coolness of the late author’s characters. In truth, they’re really hang-out movies with loose plots. Leonard seemed to feel most at home with career criminals who aren’t swaggering, swinging d—s but instead blue-collar types who wouldn’t know what to do with the riches a final score would get them.
Though it lacks fireworks or a sure hand, “Life of Crime” — from Leonard’s 1978 novel “The Switch” — gets that more than most. Instead of slightly scuffed-up (though, admittedly, career peak) George Clooney in “Out of Sight,” you get John Hawkes, an old school fascinating (which is to “interesting looking”) character actor with a different kind of intense gravity.
Hawkes plays Louis, and he’s really part of an ensemble engaged in a plot that sounds like a comedy: He and partner Ordell (Yasiin Bey, aka the former Mos Def) are ex-cons who kidnap Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman, Frank (Tim Robbins). But Frank doesn’t want to pay up; in fact they catch him shacking up in Miami with his mistress (Isla Fischer), who may be a schemer too.
Wait, are we really supposed to call "Life of Crime" co-star Mos Def by the name Yasiin Bey? Credit: Barry Wetcher
Yep, this is the plot of “Ruthless People.” (An adaptation of “The Switch” was called off in the ’80s after that film proved a monster hit.) "Life of Crime," by contrast, is shaggier and it goes light on the comedy — or at least light-ish; it can’t always decide if it should be a farce or a hang-out film, and so does both, neither with its whole ass. It can’t nail a tone either: Robbins and Fischer are in a goofier film than Aniston and Hawkes, who beautifully underplay their tentative almost-romance, in which they strike a quiet bond over a shared world-weariness.
Aniston and Hawkes are so strong together (and, for that matter, apart) that they make up for the rickety structural foundation. Then again, that lack of a sure tone is also what makes it strangely watchable. It’s funnier than it often lets on, and also more dangerous than it can seem, so when comedy and violence do break they hit all the harder. When Will Forte, playing a fellow country club staple trying to start an affair with Mickey, stumbles upon the kidnapping-in-progress and, instead of calling the police, fumbles around destroying evidence he was always there, it’s both dark and amusing. It’s a film leading up to a decent punchline, but getting there is rough, oddly humane fun — a crime dramedy filled with characters whose capacity for buffoonishness as well as recognizable humanity always surprises.