Adapted from crime author Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime (2013) is a polyester clad, bell-bottom sporting time capsule of seventies kitsch. An intelligently plotted crime caper starring Jennifer Aniston, rapper Mos Def and John Hawkes – as well as a glitzy supporting cast that includes Isla Fisher, Nebraska’s Will Forte and Tim Robbins – Schechter’s latest marks its arrival with a fanfare of style and sass, but lacks the necessary bite to leave a lasting impression. Mickey (Aniston) is the trophy wife of corrupt real estate developer Frank Dawson (Robbins). Her position in high society makes her the perfect mark for aspiring kidnappers Ordell (Def) and Louis (Hawkes).
This pair of affable yet inelegant criminals have learned of Frank’s nefarious deals and numerous off-shore accounts and have consequently planned to extract a princely ransom from the abduction of his presumed beloved. The only problem is Frank doesn’t really care about his wife. He already has another beau hauled up in his Florida hideaway and was all set to file for divorce on the day Mickey is taken. What was supposed to be a simple game of extortion turns into a series of ham-fisted, Coen brothers-esque bumbling and instances of friends double crossing friends that finally sees poor Mickey caught between a cheating low-life husband and the sinister advances of deranged Nazi memorabilia obsessive Richard (Mark Boone Junior), whose house Ordell and Louis have chosen as a hideout.
Lost in a world of flammable leisure suits and manicured sideburns, Life of Crime feels like it’s been dragged through a vintage clothes fair and emerged looking like a Miami Vice fancy dress party. Surrounded by eight-track audio cassettes and Betamax players, Schechter’s sanitised vision of the seventies leaves none of the period’s cruder elements to chance. Accompanied by a feisty score by the Newton Brothers, the film plays to a sense of longing and belonging, yet there’s a perceptible lethargy to the narrative drive, with Schechter too reliant on Leonard’s acerbic prose and the film’s retro aesthetics to mask a noticeable lack of tension. This incredibly neutered caper feels far too warm and congenial to be considered as anything other than a gentle blast of cheesy nostalgia. Hawkes gets to sport his lesser-spotted affable side as the sweet-natured Louis, while Mos Def aces Ordell’s role as the cynical accomplice. Aniston also shines as the damsel in distress, squeezing enough empathy from limited resources to hold our attention.
Robbins’ pantomime villain, with his quaffed hair and fake tan is the final piece of this meticulously fashioned puzzle. Yet for all the star power, and all the period detail in Schechter’s screenplay the film sadly flat lines. Characters that fizz on the page feel flat and one dimensional on the screen. Hawkes and Mos Def are their charismatic selves and are well placed to deliver Leonard’s zippy dialogue, yet the wistful fetishism of the aesthetics smoothers their character’s rough corners and dilutes some of their attitude. Numerous obstacles and additional players are thrown into the mix to add a little spice and drama, yet they fade in and out with little fanfare. Ultimately, the film’s biggest obstacle is its source material. Life of Crime hinges on Mickey’s metamorphoses from victim to blackmailer, yet much like the book, this switch is used as a climax rather than a narrative change of pace, resulting in a rather drab and unrewarding finale.