‘Life of Crime’ does pay, in mild humor: 2.5 stars

08/28/2014 8:00 AM

08/28/2014 1:00 PM

“Life of Crime” may have a hard-boiled title, but this comedic thriller provides rather innocent amusement.

Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey, the performer formerly known as Mos Def) are small-time hoods in 1978 Detroit. They scheme to extort $1 million from Frank (Tim Robbins), a slick real estate developer who spends his days at the country club and weekends “on business” in the Bahamas, where he stashes his earnings away from prying eyes.

The crooks kidnap his socialite wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), and imprison her in the home of accomplice Richard (Mark Boone Junior), a sweaty Nazi memorabilia collector with a personality to match. Louis takes an instant liking to the genial woman; Richard loathes her after presuming she’s Jewish.

But most heists hinge on “Something we didn’t plan on. Something we didn’t know about,” as Louis says.

That comes in the form of Melanie (Isla Fisher), Frank’s gold-digger mistress who has joined him in the Bahamas. He had been planning to divorce his wife to be with her. And when he receives the call demanding ransom, the buxom beauty eggs him on to ignore the kidnappers. Think of the alimony he’ll save if they murder Mickey.

Desperate criminals clashing with resourceful victims is the perfect formula for novelist Elmore Leonard (who died in 2013). In “Out of Sight,” “Jackie Brown” and “Get Shorty,” characters blur the definition of good or bad while pursuing a big score. Leonard’s snappy verbal style translates effectively — albeit less memorably — in this modest adaptation of his 1978 novel “The Switch.”

“Life of Crime” plays more like a stream of minor vignettes than an intricately plotted caper. How else to explain an opening piece of random revenge that doesn’t do anything to move the plot along, other than introduce the casual friendship between Louis and Ordell. (Yes, they’re the same characters who grow up to be Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in “Jackie Brown.”)

The minimalist charm of Hawkes (“The Sessions”) coupled with the easygoing hipness of Bey might seem better suited for a workplace comedy than a heist.

Having Aniston underplay her predicament (with the exception of one very intense scene) adds to the light tone established by writer/director Daniel Schechter. Her polite chemistry with Hawkes keeps the story grounded no matter what stray tangents Schechter pursues. The film’s episodic approach evokes “American Hustle” but with lower stakes and less style.

Speaking of style, Schechter’s version of 1978 leans on a soundtrack crammed with early ’70s soul tunes and a wardrobe of earth tones and bell bottoms. The filmmaker seems unaware that the flashy disco scene had completely swallowed the culture by that point. The look and feel of the production are loaded with too many mixed messages.

“Life of Crime” ends with more of a whimsical whimper than a bang. The final shot relies on a “what happens next” punch line that anybody can see coming. Anybody except for the most cunning member of this tale, who seems oblivious to the outcome.

(At Cinetopia.)

‘LIFE OF CRIME’

2.5 stars

Rated R | Time: 1:39

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