Not every movie based on Elmore Leonard’s distinctive crime fiction needs to go the antic route. It worked for “Get Shorty,” but “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” did pretty well tapping into the soulful side of Leonard’s storytelling. Indie filmmaker Daniel Schechter seems to be trying to split the difference with “Life of Crime,” an adaptation of Leonard’s kidnapping caper “The Switch” that stars Jennifer Aniston (and that’s not to be confused with Aniston’s 2010 rom-com “The Switch”). The cast does capable work, but you’ll wish the movie concentrated more on the comedy, which has some zing, rather than the straighter elements, which quickly start to drag.
Aniston plays Mickey Dawson, a rich, melancholy housewife in ’70s Detroit who’s married to blowhard property-management mogul Frank (Tim Robbins). Enter idle criminals Ordell and Louis (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. rapper Mos Def, and John Hawkes, in the roles played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in “Jackie Brown”). Tipped off that Frank has a secret offshore account, the two cook up a plot to kidnap Mickey and demand a $1 million ransom. Their plan works except for little hitches like Mickey’s would-be paramour (Will Forte) stumbling across the abduction, martinis in hand. Oh, and one big hitch: Frank, who’s off in the Bahamas with trampy Melanie (Isla Fisher), decides not to pay. (Sound vaguely familiar? Supposedly Diane Keaton was once going to do a version of the story before Danny DeVito and Bette Midler’s similarly themed “Ruthless People” scuttled the project.)
Hawkes and Bey are a nicely paired comedic duo, from an opening bit involving some cartoonishly premeditated road rage to their hangout sessions with a schlubby accomplice (Mark Boone Junior, “Sons of Anarchy”) who’s into Nazi memorabilia. Louis worries that a needlepoint-quaint wall hanging about blacks and Jews might be a slight, um, problem. Ordell is amusingly nonchalant, in a sly inversion of Mos Def’s well-publicized social consciousness.
Still, Aniston’s character is intended to be the focus — for the criminal craziness, for Louis’s secretly sensitive pining, and most importantly, for the audience. And she just sort of . . . exists through her ordeal. Aniston and Hawkes have an effective scene in which Mickey and Louis share a joint, quietly, improbably connecting. Schechter lavishes period detail on his heroine, draping her in beige rayon and putting her in a sedan with a plaid interior. Aniston does pensiveness fine. But she played it even better in 2002’s yearning-cashier dramedy “The Good Girl,” crafting a character whose lack of options resonated. Here, we watch what she’s going through, and when we’re not meant to be laughing, we just shrug.