DIR/WRI: Daniel Schechter • PRO: Ashok Amritraj, Elizabeth Destro, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Jordan Kessler, Lee Stollman • DOP: Eric Alan Edwards • ED: Melanie Oliver • DES: Inbal Weinberg • MUS: The Newton Brothers • Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Isla Fisher, Mos Def, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior Tim Robbins
In ’70s Detroit Mickey Dawson (Aniston) is a lonely socialite, stuck in a loveless marriage with Frank (Robbins) who drinks heavily and often leaves her home alone while he engages in ‘business trips’. After becoming privy to Frank’s secret finances, two lowly crooks (Mos Def and John Hawkes) decide to kidnap Mickey and ransom her back to him. Unbeknownst to them, everything is not rosy in the Dawson marriage and combined with their poor planning and worse choice of accomplice in the form of an ageing, mentally deteriorating Nazi-sympathiser (Boone Jr), the plan quickly begins to suffer severe complications. As unexpected third parties become involved and unlikely friendships and rivalries develop, the kidnappers scramble to alter their already poorly thought-out plan before the situation spirals completely out of control and they end up with more bodies than ransom money.
The film is reminiscent of a less obnoxious and in-your-face version of an Ocean’s… movie. The initial act of the film has the quick-editing feel of a caper in that vein and while it’s on the whole much darker in both general tone and humour, there is a relaxed, engaging energy that the film manages to maintain quite successfully throughout. What really sells the entire enterprise is an unexpected sense of authenticity. While a film like American Hustle wears its setting like an extension of the costume department, Life of Crime never bashes you over the head with its ’70s-ness. Sure, every now and then a piece of score will start up that sounds like the opening of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and there are a reasonable number of turtlenecks on show but by and large the period settling is kept understated and immersive rather than blatant and pantomime.
On top of this well-realised setting, the filmmakers also sidestep the mistake that people often make with black comedies. A black comedy isn’t just a licence to make jokes in bad taste but rather should be a comedy that still retains a streak of unease and darkness. Between the borderline abusive marriage Aniston’s character finds herself in to the second-generation Nazi, who is initially the butt of many a joke but steadily becomes more unhinged, there are several scenes with a genuine sense of tension and discomfort. A surprisingly harrowing attempted rape near the end comes across as a lazy way of raising the stakes and while that’s not to say it feels inconsistent with the rest of the film, it does feel unnecessary.
Speaking of the end of the film, and this is going to sound hyperbolic, this film has one of the most immensely satisfying conclusions to any film in recent memory. The film starts off quite unremarkable, story-wise, and once it hits the genre-mandated snag in the kidnappers’ ‘full-proof’ scheme, it seems like there’s only a couple of possible directions it can really go. And yet it doesn’t, the plot continues to twist in surprising and clever ways and you slowly realise that Aniston’s arc is actually the centre of the film. At the point where many similar films would end, this one proceeds to further explore the situation to (a version of) its logical conclusion. Aniston is on top form in these scenes and you can’t help but really root for her character and when it reaches its very end, the final shot; it’s absolutely perfect. Now, I’m not saying that in terms of all of cinema this is the best ending to any movie ever but within this genre, with the type of story this movie is telling, this is the most perfect way that narrative could have been concluded.
Of course, that’s not to say the film is flawless. Funny as jokes about Nazis can innately be, it does feel like low-hanging fruit. There are also a few too many characters who seem to have their own mini-arcs or subplots set up and never really developed, most notably Will Forte’s character who seems to just hang around for a few quick scenes that pad out the running time. A running time that didn’t really need it, incidentally. The fun of the opening grinds to a halt in the middle as the film goes through the motions of the genre. Once it picks back up it’s great and that’s when the twists start but there is a noticeable lull in the middle. These are all tolerable nit-picks though.
It’s a strange little film which seems to have arrived with little in the way of fanfare or expectations. There’s something about the phrase ‘Jennifer Aniston crime-caper’ that naturally puts you on edge (maybe because it reminds us that The Bounty Hunter exists) and yet here it is, probably the most pleasant surprise of the summer 2014 and right at the tail end of it. The writing is sharp and funny, the script stays true to itself as a black comedy, the cast are all a delight to watch (especially Aniston) and it makes for thoroughly satisfying viewing. Definitely worth seeking out.
Life of Crime is released 5th September 2014