It’s pretty amazing when you can watch a movie that offers nothing new, that has a plot that doesn’t so much drive as it does meander, and that, to top it all off, stars Jennifer Aniston in the female lead— to watch a movie like that and still find it nothing but enjoyable, now that is an exceptional movie.
Life of Crime is every kidnap caper you’ve ever seen, right down to the Nixon masks. In fact, these are characters that you have quite literally seen before. The movie is based on Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, which takes place in the same world as his Rum Punch, the inspiration for Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. So while it’s not exactly a prequel, John Hawks is playing a kinder, gentler DeNiro, and The Artist Formerly Known As Mos Def (now yasiin bey — mandatory lowercase spelling according to the end credits) is a de-ponytailed Samuel L. Jackson. The two are criminals (Louis and Ordell, respectively), with ambitions greater than their skills. They set their sights on Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), who has over a million dollars of ill-gotten gains via some real estate fraud, and a ransomable wife, Mickey (Aniston). Once they’ve kidnapped Mickey, though, it becomes clear she might not be the best way to get Frank’s money. It turns out he was already on the brink of divorce, and is much more focused on his mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher as a less surfery, just as shrewd Bridget Fonda). As their plans fall apart, Ordell attempts to get the money from, or at least the cooperation of Melanie, who in turn uses him to push her relationship with Frank along at the faster speed she’s been wanting. Meanwhile, Louis (whose quiet criminal awkwardness is what Stockholm Syndrome was made for) and Mickey find their relationship gently nudging itself beyond kidnapper/captive.
As we’ve seen before, Elmore Leonard provides source material that is entirely malleable. His novels are a great canvas for a director to pour themselves onto. His stories can be just as slickly Hollywoodized (Get Shorty) as they can be a sharp dose of violent fun (Jackie Brown, or Soderbergh’s Out of Sight). In the hands of a strong director, these movies can be truly great, and in the hands of anyone else, they can be utterly forgettable. Daniel Schechter sits somewhere in the middle. His vision is clear, if not confident. He keeps his story simple and tells it decently. It helps that he’s assembled a hell of a cast, each of whom is fantastic, and carries with a kind of understated grace a movie that, with any less effort, could have been a complete mess. In addition to the main cast, occasional shots of energy show up in the form of Will Forte, doing that bumbly will Forte thing, and Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior, as a racist Nazi helping out with the kidnapping. Incredibly, the real stand out here is Jennifer Aniston. While her character may not show very much range, keeping all her emotional cards right up against her chest, she has an intense energy, and a subtle sadness that make this a definite contender for the best role of her career. It’s basically a toss-up between this and “The One Where No One’s Ready.”
Life of Crime may not have the lasting impact of Out of Sight or Jackie Brown, but those are high bars to try to clear. This movie stands perfectly well on its own. And it’s actually perfect for a sh*t summer like this one: It’s entertaining, it’s smart enough, but it won’t make you work watching it. Sure, you may have forgotten the movie exists as soon as its over, but you’ll have spent a nice couple of hours playing around in a fun caper. Could be a whole lot worse than that.