If you’re still smarting from a sharp disappointment from this summer (ahem, “Snowpiercer”), you could do a lot worse than bounce back with a just-good-enough rebound like “Life of Crime.” Much like the unassuming heroine Jennifer Aniston plays (and perhaps like Aniston herself), this Elmore Leonard adaptation doesn’t inspire ardor, but it certainly boasts above-average intelligence and a streak of knowing unpredictability that make the dark comedy a pleasurable morsel of escapism.
While out-in-the-streets women’s libbers enjoyed their 1970s heyday in the battlegrounds of New York and D.C., Aniston’s Mickey, a Detroit housewife, embarks on her own journey of self-actualization in the midst of her abduction. A pair of first-time kidnappers, Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), snatch Mickey from her affluent but unshowy home to ransom her for a million dollars. They’re not aware, though, that Mickey’s bullying husband Frank (Tim Robbins) has already filed for divorce — and that he’d just as soon have the kidnappers relieve him of the responsibility of making alimony payments for the rest of his life.
Mickey doesn’t know about either the divorce filings or Frank’s off-the-books business dealings, which afford him the regular Caribbean vacations he takes with his mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher). When she finally learns of his chicaneries — and his unwillingness to pay for her freedom — Mickey angles to seize control of the narrative and to map out a path to freedom from both her kidnappers and her husband.
Because we’re introduced to Mickey as a browbeaten deer, delicate and wide-eyed, it’s satisfying to see her eventual reinvention as the kind of woman who avenges the invasion of bathroom privacy by thrusting a lit cigarette into her Peeping Tom’s spyhole. (She narrowly misses burning the eye of neo-Nazi Richard (Mark Boone Junior), whose house she’s stashed away in.) She quickly notices Louis’ hangdog affection for her and exploits it to her advantage without ever being unkind.
It’s a joy to watch several of the other characters also gradually defy archetype. Writer-director Daniel Schechter (“Supporting Characters”) skillfully interweaves their deepening psychologies with the unfolding abduction caper, with the kidnapping crisis revealing everyone’s true colors. Like her rival, Melanie the Mistress turns out to be much cleverer than her skimpy outfits (and her attraction to blustering, bullish Frank) first suggest. Her married lover, on the other hand, proves compellingly inept, as does the contemptibly spineless Marshall (Will Forte), a fellow country-clubber, besotted with Mickey, who accidentally witnesses her abduction.
Because its expansiveness serves it so well, “Life of Crime” collapses toward the end when Schechter folds the story upon itself to pinch it into a cyclical structure; that might have seemed witty on the page, but it feels calculatingly hollow on screen. To force the narrative trajectory toward its predetermined end, it also necessarily flattens Ordell and especially Louis. With just the outlines of a character, Hawkes works just as hard as the rest of the veteran cast, but he doesn’t have much else to do than bat his sad eyes at Aniston. You can feel Louis’ longing for Mickey, but not his love.
For all its well-timed twists and betrayals, though, there’s a slightness to the film that makes it little more than a congenial distraction in the last days of this drought-choked season. Sure, it’s nice to stare at something that’s not outrageously dumb while sitting in industrial-strength air-conditioning, but if you want a movie you’ll actually remember next month, search elsewhere.