Review: 'Life of Crime' misses Leonard's rhythm

August 25, 2014 - 8:34 PM
Film Review Life of Crime

This image released by Roadside Attractions shows John Hawkes, left, and Jennifer Aniston in a scene from "Life of Crime." (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, Barry Wetcher)

Some may pine for George Clooney's chin or Scarlett Johansson's lips, but no body part should be more envied than Elmore Leonard's ear.

Leonard's dialogue seemed to have walked in off the street. He filled countless pages with the stuff, capturing with preternatural acuity the diverse, often ungrammatical, frequently comic ping-ponging sounds of American voices shooting the breeze.

And he did it, like a magician, without showing his hand. "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it," was one of his 10 rules. He probably would have rewritten these sentences.

It's both why Leonard has been so alluring to filmmakers, and why adapting him is so difficult. His talky, screenplay-friendly books have already produced some 20 movies (including "Out of Sight," ''Jackie Brown," ''Get Shorty" and "3:10 to Yuma") and several TV shows (like the pulpy "Justified").

Now, a year after his death, comes the film "Life of Crime," a largely faithful and appropriately admiring adaptation of Leonard's 1978 novel "The Switch."

It has three very good things going for it: the crinkled face of John Hawkes, the nasal deadpan of Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Jennifer Aniston in the kind of comedic-dramatic part she should have always been playing.

Hawkes and Bey play a pair of Detroit criminals — Louis Gara and Ordell Robbie, respectively — who conspire to kidnap the wife, Mickey (Aniston), of a suburban sleaze ball, Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). Their plan to hold her goes awry when the plot is one-upped by others swirling around Dawson with equally bad motives.

With his mistress (Isla Fisher), Dawson has sneaked off to the Bahamas, where he's hiding money skimmed off his business and plotting a divorce. Is getting rid of his wife even a threat? Also interfering on their home abduction is a country-club acquaintance (a mustachioed, cowardly Will Forte), whose ill-conceived romantic pursuit of Mickey brings him calling at precisely the wrong time.

Throw in the kidnappers' third collaborator — a wheezing Nazi pervert (Mark Boone Junior) — and it soon becomes clear that Louis may be the only gentleman left in Detroit.

Director Daniel Schechter (in his biggest production to date) gives the film a thick '70s atmosphere, cribbing a bit from an adaptation of another crime fiction classic, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." (Schechter shot in Connecticut, just south of the suburban Massachusetts of Peter Yates' film.)

The vintage glow and period soundtrack are fitting but also somewhat stifling. Plaid pants and Hawkes (destined to one day play the Band's Rick Danko) fit almost too snuggly.

Though it has a capable cast (it's a particular pleasure to hear how Bey's Ordell reasons his association with a racist Nazi) and it hues closely to Leonard's dialogue, "Life of Crime" is missing the colorful snappiness of the novelist's prose. The plotting doesn't help. In one lengthy stretch, the action turns static while the kidnappers hole up in a hideout and Dawson delays answering their demands.

But the Leonard briskness is something that only Steven Soderbergh — the director most synced with Leonard's nimble rhythm — really nailed. His bright, vivid "Out of Sight" remains the class of the Leonard adaptations.

"Life of Crime" had Leonard's blessing (he's an executive producer) but it doesn't summon the right pulse, the needed note of wryness until the very end. It's a solid enough ode to the writer. But, as ever, to hear Leonard's dialogue really sing, you'll have to head back to his stack of paperbacks.

"Life of Crime," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language, some sexual content and violence." Running time: 99 minutes. Two and half stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP