No one brought more panache to wised-up crime, crime with a wicked sense of humor, than the late Elmore Leonard.
As the author of close to 50 novels, Leonard’s star has never been brighter, including the publication this week of a collection of four 1970s novels by the prestigious Library of America.
With their snappy plotting and peerless dialogue, Leonard’s books have been turned into dozens of films, the best of which include such favorites as “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty” and “Jackie Brown” (based on the novel “Rum Punch”).
“Life of Crime,” written and directed by Daniel Schechter, is the latest top-drawer entertainment with the Leonard imprimatur: In fact the book it’s taken from, “The Switch,” is good enough to be included in that Library of America volume.
Schechter received the master’s approval for this project after he wrote the entire script on spec, so it’s no surprise that “Life of Crime” has the authentic Leonard snap, crackle and pop. (The novelist is listed as executive producer, and the film is dedicated to him.)
“Crime” also features an ensemble (top-lined by Jennifer Aniston) of seven actors who understand just how to pull off a disreputable character comedy delicately balanced between mayhem and humor.
One unexpected aspect of “Life of Crime” is that its central bad guys, Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, are repeat characters from “Jackie Brown,” where they were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro. Here they’re taken on by Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and John Hawkes, and their strong acting ensures that the storytelling doesn’t lose a step.
The year is 1978, and “Life of Crime” starts, as Leonard novels frequently do, in Detroit, with Ordell and Louis having a pleasantly low-rent conversation about a crime they’re thinking of committing. Though these guys are drop-dead amusing, the film never lets us forget that they can and will be completely ruthless if the situation calls for it.
This disreputable pair have discovered that wealthy real-estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins at his most pompous, which is saying a lot) has been skimming $50,000 a month off his projects for years and is a millionaire.
A cutthroat country club golfer, Frank has a tendency to call his long-suffering wife, Mickey (Aniston in her best performance since Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money”), “the other trophy in my life.” He calls her a lot of other things as well when he’s drunk, which is often.
Ordell and Louis, who are nothing if not thorough, have also discovered that Frank has a mistress in the Bahamas named Melanie (the always amusing Isla Fisher) he visits every chance he gets. So the plan is, snatch Mickey while Frank is out of town and tell him he has to pay $1-million ransom or he doesn’t get to see his wife again. Ever.
Every criminal team needs a disreputable confederate, and in this case it’s Richard Monk (“Sons of Anarchy’s” Mark Boone Junior), an arms dealer and neo-Nazi racist whose “send them back to Africa” rhetoric amuses the African American Ordell. “He’s so dumb,” he tells Louis, “it’s adorable.”
These men have concocted a fine plan for kidnapping Mickey, as far as it goes, but as in all Leonard concoctions, it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t, for instance, know how to deal with Marshall Taylor (Will Forte doing clueless), a persistent country club swain with a yen for Mickey who has a habit of showing up at the least opportune time.
It’s not just that Marshall’s libido complicates things, it’s that it’s a given in Elmoreland that things do more than go wrong, they do so in ways no one could have anticipated. Unlikely alliances and unforeseen collaborations result as self-interested folks look out for themselves in situations where even the scammers can’t be sure who is scamming whom.
Adding to the amusement in this case is the way production designer Inbal Weinberg and costume designer Anna Terrazas have ensured that every location, not to mention every person, looks quintessentially 1970s. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
As “Crime’s” plot gets more complex, it’s hard to avoid trying to figure out how things will turn out, but the truth is it can’t be done. An Elmore Leonard cocktail of crime, comedy and character has to be mixed to exact proportions, and only the master can get it right every time.
‘Life of Crime’
MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual content and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In general release