Life of Crime (15 cert, 98 min) ***
In many ways, it’s unfortunate that Life of Crime, writer-director Daniel Schechter’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, should have to emerge into the long shadow cast by David O. Russell’s dazzling American Hustle. Here’s another 1970s-set caper pitting a city’s grafters against its ruling elite, stocked with the bouffant hair, terylene slacks, split screens and ironic soundtrack cues expected of any self-respecting retro pastiche. All this pretty ordinary indie genre exercise lacks are any truly elevating features. It’s Poundland Leonard: it’ll do, but you can’t help but emerge from it wanting a dash more colour and quality.
The winning duo of John Hawkes and yasiin bey (a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known As Mos Def) play Louis and Ordell, a couple of Detroit street punks whose latest masterplan involves kidnapping neglected trophy wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), with the aim of relieving her country-club hubby Frank (Tim Robbins) of some of the moolah he’s been withholding from the taxman. Trouble is, the lackadaisical pair have left behind one persistent loose end in Mickey’s married lover Marshall (Will Forte); they also don’t seem to have clocked Frank’s general indifference to Mickey’s fate. Best laid plans, and all that.
Given how showy Russell’s film was accused of being in some quarters – all those wigs and frocks, all that Oscar-baiting acting – there’s a certain mileage in Schechter’s evocation of a determinedly low-rent criminal milieu. It’s quite funny when Frank attempts to take down the account number for the ransom number, and can’t find a pen. American Hustle lacquered its leading ladies with a knowingly tacky glamour, but Aniston has only Mickey’s Deirdre Barlow specs to work with; she spends much of the second act muddling through under a grotty-looking balaclava.
Too often, however, Life of Crime is just plain humdrum, down 40% on Leonard’s usual zip. Where Russell used his hustle to dramatise our infinite capacity for self-deception, Schechter merely rotates a squad of familiar patsies and stooges: Louis’s slowburn affection for Mickey is a matter of plot mechanics, not onscreen chemistry. “Let’s be honest – this could have gone a whole lot better,” assesses Frank’s mistress Melanie (a sparky Isla Fisher) late on, and the dame’s right on the money. If you’re in the market for a workaday crime story, Schechter’s film fulfils some of its obligations. You might just wish it had more life.
Life of Crime is now playing in selected cinemas.