Life of Crime 's Louis (John Hawkes) and Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) (Barry Wetcher)
Based on the clever, free-wheeling 1978 caper novel The Switch, Life of Crime is the latest in a decades-long string of adaptations stemming from the pages of legendary author Elmore Leonard. Rejecting the hardboiled, larger-than-life pulp narratives of predecessors Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Leonard wrote crime fiction imbued with a streak of absurdist humor and a winking understanding that criminals are, just like the rest of us, flawed human beings.
Adapted for the screen and directed by Daniel Schechter (Supporting Characters), the ’70s-set Life of Crime follows a pair of hapless petty criminals, Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def), who kidnap suburban trophy wife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston) while her piggish, rich husband Frank (Tim Robbins) is away on vacation. Things get complicated, however, when they find out that Frank, who is shacked up with his mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher), was planning on divorcing Mickey anyway, and thus has no interest in getting her back. Soon, their plan is further complicated as wimpy Marshall (Will Forte), an underling of Frank’s who hoped to have an affair with Mickey, and wack-job Richard (Mark Boone Jr.), a neo-Nazi who owns the house where the guys are holding their captive, further complicate matters with their ineptitude. What follows is a zany string of double-crosses and comic mishaps that turn what should have been a simple job into a bonafide mess with potentially ruinous consequences.
Despite these crooked hijinks, the real core of Crime is the burden of humanity, which unites criminals and their victims in its confused foibles. To survive, Leonard and Schechter seem to purport, we must work together, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. Similarly, although the cast and crew of the film come from seemingly disparate backgrounds – what with Aniston the superstar, Hawkes the theater veteran, Forte the “SNL”-grad funny man and Schechter the young indie helmer – they all worked hard to form a cohesive unit to bring this unique story to the big screen.
“One of the joys of working in movies is the other people they hire,” explains Hawkes. “You’re only as good as the people around you. We were very lucky.”
Perhaps the defining relationship of the movie is the one between good-hearted crook Louis and repressed housewife Mickey. In creating this potent dynamic, both Hawkes and Aniston agree that the source of their onscreen chemistry was refreshingly organic.
“You can’t force [it]! We got along when we met … and we’re both just interested actors,” reckons Aniston. “One of the beautiful things about [acting] is … you always find surprises about the way people work. I love [Hawkes'] curiosity. Sometimes as an actor you go, ‘God, I should know how to play this.’ But it’s great when you’re with actors that you can really communicate that [uncertainty] with.”
Hawkes concurs that there’s no way to force a realistic bond on screen.
“If a script says your character is ‘charismatic’ – there’s no way to play that. Jennifer and I worked together long ago … a lot of admiration helped. It makes it easier when someone’s open and game to work.”
In the film, the unlikely pair of characters start off at ends, but as the kidnapping deviates further and further from the plan, genuine affection slips into their rapport as Mickey begins to feel more connected to her life in bondage than she was to her domestic existence.
“Mickey is living in the petrified forest with Frank [being] … emotionally abused,” explains Aniston. “She didn’t know how to make a move to get her out of that sort of jail. Oddly enough, the kidnapping is her ‘get out of jail free’ card. As her situation becomes more dire, she finds that [inner] strength.”
Director Schechter confirms: “When we meet Mickey, she’s putting on masks for her husband, the country club … but when she gets kidnapped she realizes she doesn’t have to put on airs. She figures out who she is in this situation and … finds her voice.”
For its time, Leonard’s novel is worth noting for its portrayal of strong women. Aniston’s Mickey goes from a weak-hearted waif to a sassy badass who finds company in thieves and misfits. Even Melanie, Frank’s sexy mistress, shows cold-blooded savvy in pulling the strings behind her own double cross. This forward-thinking attitude was among the elements that piqued the interest of both the film’s director and its leading lady.
“Mickey’s character arc is a powerful one,” notes Aniston, “and [Leonard] writing that for a woman in the ’70s was pretty awesome. So was knowing that I’d get to work [on that] with Daniel.”
“One of the main things that attracted me to the book was how these men who had selfish motives would abandon their own interests out of lust for a beautiful woman,” echoes Schechter. “Women have to find power where they can throughout history. By the time this takes place [in 1978], Mickey is 10 years behind [women's rights] in the way that she feels about herself. I find seeing her gain power through the movie very empowering.”
Clearly, so did Aniston, as she put her full weight behind Life of Crime not just as its star, but as executive producer as well.
“I’ve always loved Elmore Leonard,” she confesses. “I love the way he writes characters. They’re interesting and detailed, [even] his bad guys … they’re not the brightest, but they’re so charming and lovable.”
Of course, with this incongruous duality, there was a thin line to be traversed in finding the right tone for the characters.
“We didn’t want to make it too goofy,” states Forte. “There was a lot of workshopping with Dan to … find the right level, to make sure it was capturing the essence of those characters in a believable way.”
Indeed, those same characters appeared significantly less lovable in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown, itself an adaptation of Rum Punch, the 1992 sequel to Leonard’s The Switch (a bit confusing, no?). That film had a significantly harsher take on Leonard’s material, evaporating a good deal of the characters’ decency as they became embittered with age.
Despite acting in a pseudo-prequel to that cult classic, which featured Robert De Niro as Louis and Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell, Hawkes found himself undaunted by the prospect of filling big shoes.
“Luckily, I hadn’t seen Jackie Brown … there [would be] no worse curse as an actor. I once got cast in a TV series, and it said in the script: ‘Think Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.’‘ Believe me, that’s all I could think,” he shares. “I’m a huge fan of Robert DeNiro, [but] I hadn’t read any Leonard novels. The script was the bible.”
Ironically, for the man who wrote that very bible, that prospect was nothing if not daunting.
“There was definitely angst,” recalls Schechter, “Leonard was someone who I enormously admire, and he loved to publicly shit on the adaptations he didn’t like. There was self pressure I had to please him. [But then,] it was like reading music. I could hear it in my head … I could see it in my eye as I was reading [the book]. It was seven roles I wanted to see cast like a Harry Potter fan who wanted to see those actors fill those roles … it was so interesting that through the casting of these guys it could go either way. It was a tightrope I enjoyed walking.
Since Life Of Crime plays successfully as a compact, whip-smart comedic thriller that stays eerily faithful to the unique spirit of Leonard’s novels, it’s safe to say that Schechter and his devoted cast made it to the other side of that tight rope without taking a plunge, largely through the virtue of their kindred taste and openness to collaboration.
Forte concludes, “It was a wonderful, nurturing environment … there were quick friendships made. Everyone was sweet and respectful. [It was] a great working experience.”
Life of Crime releases in theaters Aug. 29.