Down to its too-crisp rubber Nixon masks, Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime—a lugubriously retitled adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch—revels in obnoxiously self-aware period detail. The film never risks sprinting ahead of (or deliberately behind) its audience, never focuses too intently on any one character, never ties itself in a knot exposition-wise, and never feels like it’s putting much of anything on the line. It’s a meticulously calibrated ensemble piece, but without the panache of a great character study, nor the momentum Leonard deserves; instead, the main draw appears to be well-liked or attractive people doing or saying silly things. That it happens to look and feel very much like American Hustle is unfortunate, as Life of Crime is the older of the two movies, but the egalitarian goofiness of the performances gives it a undeniably comparable dramatic weightlessness.
Structurally, Schechter commits a classic error of novel-to-screen adaptation by (admirably, at least on paper) refusing to sacrifice one of Elmore’s checkered personalities at the sake of another. So when his film is introducing its versions of Ordell Robbie (Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes), it resembles a funky, smooth crime caper; when it introduces bored Detroit housewife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston) as she drifts further away from her bourbon-slugging husband, Frank (Tim Robbins), it feels like a lurid domestic woman’s psychodrama from the era. Will Forte appears as Marshall, her would-be paramour from the country club, but his notably straight-laced characterization prevents the guy from taking over an inch of the viewer’s attention when he’s not on screen (normally in a flat, lengthy medium close-up). The film’s clear-eyed, bloodless professionalism in emulating genres cries out for recognition, and as it turns the screws of its kidnapping plot, Schechter opts for a too-rich soundtrack of the decade’s cheesiest rock classics, even if the people on screen would likelier have been listening to Mantovani.
Once she’s taken hostage by Ordell and Robbie, Mickey is probably intended as the movie’s bedrock, but Aniston simply doesn’t have the range to make the character stick; Schechter plays to neither her strengths nor her weaknesses. Mickey proceeds from deeply, silently hurt in Life of Crime’s expository passages to being bemused and irritated every step of her kidnapping; she even strikes up a feel-good kinship with Hawkes’s Louis. Two additional characters feature in the final 30 minutes: Melanie (Isla Fisher), the loud younger woman Robbins is leaving his wife for, and Richard (Mark Boone Junior), the haggard neo-Nazi at whose place they stash Mickey. Rather than threatening to derail the plot, their appearances are explicit signifiers that the film is coming close to wrapping itself up; Life Of Crime is a rarity among movies for the way every single character manages to feel like comic relief. Aniston’s coughing on a joint in the final scene seems like a verification that the movie was a way for the actress to let her hair down, but with the disclaimer that her preferred means of doing so is giving a long, bland starring performance in an Indiewood dramedy.