[Screen It]

"LIFE OF CRIME"
(2014) (John Hawkes, Jennifer Aniston) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Crime Drama: Two low-end criminals plot to kidnap a rich man's wife for a $1 million ransom but aren't completely prepared for what happens after that.
PLOT:
Ordell Robbie (MOS DEF) and Louis Gara (JOHN HAWKES) are two low-end criminals who've come up with a get rich quick scheme. If they kidnap Mickey Dawson (JENNIFER ANISTON) and hold her at the house of their racist, neo-Nazi friend Richard Monk (MARK BOONE JUNIOR), they can get her businessman husband, Frank (TIM ROBBINS), to pony up a $1 million ransom. But when they go to do the deed, they're interrupted by the Dawsons' married friend, Marshall Taylor (WILL FORTE), who wants to act on his crush on Mickey.

To complicate matters, Frank has filed for divorce from Mickey -- the papers are in the mail so she's unaware of this pending development -- and rather than be off on a business trip in Freeport, he's spending time with his mistress, Melanie (ISLA FISHER). When she gets wind of the ransom ploy, Melanie decides she and Frank can manipulate that to their advantage, all of which provides more than just a bump in the road for Ordell, Louis and Richard's plan. And with Louis seeming to become sympathetic toward Mickey -- and maybe more than just that -- it's uncertain how things will ultimately unfold.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While they might publically state otherwise, movie studios hate new ideas as the basis for movies. And that's because they reject the old "familiarity breeds contempt" mindset and instead embrace the notion that moviegoers are more likely to pay to see something they're already familiar with rather than something that's foreign to them.

All of which explains the preponderance of movies adapted from previous films, books, stage plays, video games and true life stories. Novels have long had the stranglehold in the world of such adaptations, with plenty of authors making a pretty penny watching their written words turned into magic up on the silver screen.

One of the more prolific in such regards was the late Elmore Leonard, a novelist who authored a plethora of works over a nearly 60-year time span, nineteen of which were turned into films, some of them fairly well-known such as "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown" (based on "Rum Punch").

Most of those were adapted just a few years after their literary release, but the one that's taken the longest is "Life of Crime," based on Leonard's 1978 work "The Switch" and a prequel of sorts to "Jackie Brown." I have no idea what held up the adaptation for so long, but considering so many others have come and gone since its original publication, it is a bit of a head-scratcher. As is the release for this film that's not getting the big roll-out one might think appropriate for Leonard or the involved cast.

I'm not familiar with the original work or how well this film adheres to its story and characters, but there's no denying that another film will likely come to mind for many a viewer upon hearing of this film's plot. And that would be "Ruthless People," the 1986 comedy where some half-wits (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater) have kidnapped the wife (Bette Midler) of a wealthy man (Danny DeVito) and wish to extort him. The "only" problem is that he doesn't like his wife (and actually was plotting on killing her), and has a mistress, thus throwing a bunch of monkeys with wrenches into the ransom plan.

Here, two low-end criminals (John Hawkes and Mos Def -- the later billed as Yasiin Bey -- playing younger versions of the characters played by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson the last time around) decide to kidnap the wife (Jennifer Aniston) of a rich businessman (Tim Robbins) and demand a $1 million ransom. The simian plumbing tool arrives in the form of news that the hubbie has already filed for divorce so that he can be with his mistress (Isla Fisher).

Throw in a married man (Will Forte) who's hot for the wife but stumbles onto the kidnapping and a racist neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Jr.) who's part of the scheme (but doesn't mind having a black man as one of his partners) and the stage would seem set for a bunch of hijinks as well as criminal and victim audibles, so to speak, befitting what readers and viewers have come to expect from Leonard's work.

That's all fine and dandy, but it all seems fairly low key as compared to what the filmmakers, cast, and crew were able to pull off with fairly similar material in "Ruthless People." In fact, it almost seems as if screenwriter Daniel Schechter and director Daniel Schechter have purposefully held back on the reins rather than let the material and cast gallop off at full speed. The potential is plentiful, but the film never seems to get out of second gear (yes, I'm mixing my speed metaphors), with opportunities either missed or strangely dampened to keep things in check and from getting out of hand.

Yes, I realize the film's tone is purposefully different and I really didn't want to see a remake of the 1986 crime comedy. But when I end up fairly bored despite the mostly terrific cast and the setup, you know something is amiss. That's especially true considering the various characters, story elements and "surprises" that are introduced and are brimming with so many possibilities, but ultimately feel like they're not allowed to grow and expand into what they could and should have become, and that's something of a cinematic crime all its own.

Perhaps the powers that be had the same reaction and thus realized moviegoers might feel the same way, resulting in the pic's fairly muted release and theater count, while the specter of "Ruthless People" meant this story sat on the shelf for 36 years before seeing the light of a projector. I'm not saying it should have stayed there, but I just wish it had been allowed to live up to its potential and run free with the material. "Life of Crime" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 25, 2014 / Posted August 29, 2014


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