With a couple of major (major) exceptions, film adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels rarely succeed. The breezy menace of his stories, the carefree, sneaky suspense of his plotting, the dim-bulb charm of his characters … it’s all booby-trapped for film. Go in one direction and it’s too bubbly, go in another and it’s all too generic, shorn of what made it special in the first place. If Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight work so well, it’s partly because those filmmakers themselves share the perverse, wildly varying tonal impulses at play in Leonard’s work. Their movies are like beautiful toy guns that somehow manage to go off.
Writer-director Daniel Schechter is no Tarantino, and Life of Crime (adapted from Leonard’s The Switch) no Jackie Brown. But the film does manage to capture something special from Leonard’s work. A casual, breezy-cool comedy about a couple of small-time hoods who kidnap the wife of a rich businessman, only to discover that the man himself is having an affair and doesn’t really want to pay to get his wife back, the film seems primed to fall into the usual Leonard trap of being a comedy that’s not funny enough and a crime flick that’s not dark enough.
But Schechter has cast his story well. As Louis and Ordell, the two kidnappers, John Hawkes and Mos Def (or is it Yasiin Bey?) ably suggest that they’re slightly out of their element, and win us over: When a part of their plan works properly, they seem as surprised as anyone else. They’re also a lot more likable than Richard (Mark Boone Jr.), the neo-Nazi pervert whose house they’re using to stash their prey. Worth noting: Ordell and Louis are the two characters later played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown (adapted from Leonard’s Rum Punch), but this doesn’t feel like a prequel, or a related work. Rather, we feel like we’re seeing these characters long before they became their more extreme Rum Punch/Jackie Brown selves, before Ordell became a gun-running nut and before Louis became a useless pothead.
The real heart of the film, though, is Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the long-suffering wife of neglectful, philandering good-old-boy real estate developer Frank (Tim Robbins). Aniston has to do a surprising amount of heavy-lifting here; in some ways, she’s the only character in the film who is not a total sociopath. She’s surrounded by criminals, and her husband is off cavorting with his younger mistress (Isla Fisher), seriously considering not paying the ransom demand. As we watch Mickey go from brittle, well-heeled victim to take-charge manipulator, the film starts to come to life; we start to care what happens to her. And suddenly, the cloud of careless malevolence that seems to float through every Elmore Leonard novel gathers meaning and weight: Criminality, even the laid-back criminality of a film like this, feels consequential when you start to care for the victim.
Is it enough, though, for the film to truly succeed? I’m not sure. If Life of Crime transcends its lightheartedness to actually make us care for what happens to its characters, it doesn’t quite transcend its own haphazard, impoverished story. I haven’t read The Switch, so I can’t tell how faithful the film is to Leonard’s original. But the author’s narratives, at their best, have a way of sneaking up on the reader: You get wrapped up in the people, and before you know it, you’re feverishly anticipating what happens next. And usually, something does happen next. In Life of Crime, you might care what happens next, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself asking, “Is that all there is?” when it’s all over.