A transformation from a victim to a survivor

A transformation from a victim to a survivor

LIFE OF CRIME (September 5, 2014)

Films adapted from the novels of the late, great novelist Elmore Leonard are a very mixed bag.  Arguably the best adaptations, Glitz (with Jimmy Smits), Out of Sight (George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez), Hombre (Paul Newman) and Rum Punch (adapted as Jackie Brown, starring Pam Grief and Samuel L. Jackson) owe more to the writers, directors and cast than to the underlying material.

While the over-produced Get Shorty was hailed as a great adaptation, it was nothing compared to the book, one of Leonard’s best, if not his funniest.

Life of Crime, adapted from the novel, The Switch, has a high concept, but simple plot that, in Daniel Schechter’s adaptation, is an odd mix of tones and genres that struggles to sustain its average running time.

Those who are raving about Jennifer Aniston’s performance as Mickey Dawson, the self-effacing suburban housewife who turns the tables on her two-timing, alcoholic husband, either haven’t read the book or fail to envisage what a better actress could contribute.

Aniston is a relatively weak link in a terrific cast that includes Tim Robbins as Frank Dawson, Isla Fisher as Dawson’s mistress, and John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey as the two ex-cons who kidnap Mickey Dawson.

The novel is rich in banter and characterisation, posing a particular challenge for directors who do not happen to be David O Russell.  It is perhaps for this reason that the film might make your mind wander to O Russell’s American Hustle.

Mickey Dawson goes through life holding her tongue and her breath.  She is trying to keep the peace with her suffocating, domineering husband, Frank (Tim Robbins) while bringing up their son (Charlie Tahan), who is beginning to take after the father he despises.

When Frank concocts a story about accompanying the boy to a tennis camp on his way to a business meeting in the Bahamas, Mickey becomes suspicious.  She has reason to be.

glasser at the moviesMeanwhile, ex-con Ordelle Robbie (Bey), who recycles household goods for a property developer, has been doing his homework.

He has enough on Frank Dawson’s tax-dodging property schemes to blackmail him.  But he persuades his sceptical old pal Louis Gara (John Hawkes), fresh out of prison, that kidnapping Frank’s wife for ransom is the way to get rich quick.

Ordelle might have thought of everything, but who could have imagined that Frank would refuse to pay the ransom?  Unbeknown to Ordelle, or to Mickey for that matter, Frank plans to divorce Mickey and marry his sexy girlfriend, Melanie (Isla Fisher). As Louis and Mickey develop a relationship, Ordelle pays Melanie a visit in an attempt to salvage the situation.

John Hawkes and Yaslin Bey are inspired casting for the two ex-cons and so charismatic that you could watch them together all day.  Isla Fisher is terrific as Melanie, a girl who is aware of her attraction to men but uses her cunning as much as her body to get what she wants.

Aniston turns in a competent performance but does not provide any insights into her character that are not in the dialogue. Her transformation from a victim and a nobody to a survivor with a new identity is hardly noticeable, a fault that might also be in the script.

If the story sounds familiar, it may be because you remember the fabulous 1986 film Ruthless People by three kings of comedy, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker.  Danny Devito was the slimy husband who not only refuses to pay the ransom, but was planning to kill his wife – played by the hilarious Bette Midler) himself.

The wife bonds with her kidnappers and together they exact revenge on her despicable husband. The film played as a straight black comedy and was brilliant.

Life of Crime hardly has the suspense to call itself a thriller, but with Frank’s alcoholism and abuse portrayed too seriously for comfort, it does not feel like a comedy either.  The film is entertaining and easy to watch, but saunters along with little tension and no sense of anything being at stake.

by Joyce Glasser, Mature Times film reviewer