ABU DHABI: Criminality is, like any capitalist enterprise, a work in progress. Just because an individual has a mischievous mind doesn’t mean he’s automatically a successful criminal. It takes practice. There’s plenty of trial and error involved, and plans evolve and change with the circumstances.“Life of Crime” is a movie about two types of criminal. On one hand there’s Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), a wealthy, respected pillar of the community with membership in exclusive social clubs and a trophy wife, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston).
He’s a sleazy real estate developer who appears to be working well within the rules – both in his business and personal life – but is not. Don’t worry. The film is set in Detroit in the 1970s. Things like this never happen any more.
On the other side of the tracks are Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes). You know these guys are much less successful, much less well-connected villains because they meet in prison.
It’s only when they emerge from jail that they decide the best way forward is to steal from a successful criminal, and Ordell happens to have information confirming that Dawson fits the bill.
The two men draw up a scheme to kidnap Dawson’s trophy wife, whom they will return in exchange for a million-dollar ransom. Naturally things don’t go quite according to plan.
For one thing Marshall (Will Forte), Frank’s mustachioed geek of a tennis partner, imagines he and Mickey will have an affair. With a pair of martinis in hand, he walks in while the kidnapping is in process, which threatens to put a major wrinkle in the boys’ plan.
For another thing, the day Mickey’s kidnapped, Frank files divorce papers. In fact he does so while spending a dirty weekend with his lover Melanie (Isla Fisher), who’s an even younger woman than Mickey – and demonstrates herself to have the most sophisticated criminal mind of the lot.
“Life of Crime” opened the Abu Dhabi Film Festival Thursday evening, provoking some hearty laughs among certain audience members. It also propelled some other viewers out of the auditorium of the Emirates Palace Hotel.
It’s uncertain whether the exeunt was prompted by offense at the brief snippets of coituslike physical contact that crop up in the film, boredom with the movie’s low-key plot development or impatience to join the opening night cocktails outside.
“Life of Crime” is the third directorial outing for writer Daniel Schechter, working from the caper novel “The Twist,” by Elmore Leonard, who’s among the film’s hoard of two-dozen-plus producers.
It’s become a Hollywood institution for A-list actors to sign on for apparently small-budget pictures driven by well-written, somehow quirky, stories – often concerned with unsavory or criminal activity that lend themselves to black comedy.
This is a genre perfected by Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, who revel in stories populated by American miscreants. Perhaps the most prominent of these films is “Fargo” (1996), but their first feature, “Blood Simple” (1984) is also populated by such wildlife.
These works have inspired a host of entertaining ensemble works – from Lawrence Kasdan’s “I Love You to Death” (1990) to Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Welcome to Collinwood” (2002).
There are far worse ways to spend an afternoon at the cinema than “Life of Crime,” yet this movie won’t go down among the best films of its kind. With so many strong elements going for it, it’s hard to put a finger on why.
Schechter’s team devises a creditable facsimile of 1970s Detroit and – though it seems to drag over its 90-odd minutes – the film swells to an amusing narrative punch line.
Its ensemble cast creates a clutch of engaging characters. Among these is Mark Boone Junior who plays Richard, a Nazi memorabilia-collecting version of the questionable figures he’s portrayed in Chris Nolan’s films. And ensemble members utter some nice lines. At one point Ordell says of Richard, “He’s so stupid, it’s adorable.”
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues until Nov. 2. For more information, see abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/.