Life of Crime (2013)
Editor’s Notes: Life of Crime opens in limited release this Friday, August 29th. The following review is a reprint from our coverage of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
When, halfway through the opening night screening of Life of Crime at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, a good portion of the audience led by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan himself walked out in reaction to a bare-breasted sex scene, they might just as easily have departed in protest of the film itself. Daniel Schechter’s adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, however innocuous an effort it may be, is a terribly uninteresting one too, scarcely worth the investment of time it asks. It hardly helps, of course, that it’s tethered to the legacy of a great film before it: Leonard’s novel would later be followed by Rum Punch, famously adapted by Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown.
Daniel Schechter’s adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, however innocuous an effort it may be, is a terribly uninteresting one too, scarcely worth the investment of time it asks.
It would be unfair to draw excess comparison to Jackie Brown; linked though they may be by way of source material, that film and this ought to have the right to exist on their own terms. Or they would, at least, if Schechter didn’t weave the comparisons directly into the fabric of the film himself. From the use of music to the editorial pacing right down to the close-ups on feet, he seems desperately keen to channel the spirit of Tarantino at every turn. It’s unwise at best and impersonal at worst: his script taking its cues directly from Leonard, his direction from Tarantino, Schechter himself is lost somewhere in the mix, leaving his film to feel little more than a lukewarm stew of inherited ideas.
There’s a certain irony in Schechter’s last film—released earlier this year—being called Supporting Characters given the general dearth thereof here. There was a movie, for all its mumblecore-gone-mainstream issues, that gave you people and problems worth caring about, delivering both via a pretty package of smart dialogue and surprising plotting. Both of which, of course, are characteristic of Leonard’s storytelling; what might seem a strange change of pace for Schechter seems less so given these shared aspects. This new undertaking may be a far less low-key effort, centred as it is on a late-‘70s extortion plot headed by Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara—as played, in 1997, by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro—but it’s that similarity of snappy dialogue and smart storytelling that draws a through line from there to here.
…there’s certainly a fast-paced fun to the expletive exchanges between the extortionists and the wealthy businessman whose wife they’ve kidnapped, yet never is the plot developed beyond the level of farce, never is anyone given anything but the barest of definition.
But of course, just as Robbie’s plans fall prey to inevitable drawbacks and screw-ups, so too is Schechter’s movie eventually victim to factors he just can’t control. Chief among them is purpose: there’s certainly a fast-paced fun to the expletive exchanges between the extortionists and the wealthy businessman whose wife they’ve kidnapped, yet never is the plot developed beyond the level of farce, never is anyone given anything but the barest of definition. That’s particularly true in the case of the husband, played by Tim Robbins with a Machiavellian glee turned right up to eleven. He has fun with the role—far more than the audience—accentuating the apathy of the character to the point of caricature that makes gradually more and more tiresome as time goes by.
Perhaps surprisingly, the best thing about the movie is Jennifer Aniston, whose captivity comes as a brief reprieve from the captivity of her marriage. Whenever Schechter has the sense to dwell on her face, he finds a humanity that’s nowhere else to be seen in this story. Alas, he rarely does, and the more time’s devoted to the comic kidnapper antics of yasiin bey, Mark Boone Jr, and a sorely underutilised John Hawkes, the more the film falls victim to its own egregious inability to be anything at all. That so sharp a source and so strong a cast can amount to something as paltry as this is a sad indication of a director without direction. For an upstart young filmmaker to mount what’s essentially a Jackie Brown prequel is a bold move. To misunderstand it so hugely is a bad one.
That so sharp a source and so strong a cast can amount to something as paltry as Life of Crime is a sad indication of a director without direction.