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If it is true, as people say, that films influence how we act, then I’m not sure why people are still in the kidnapping biz. I mean, if there is one thing movies have taught us, from Fargo to High and Low to Taken to Misery, that kidnapping thingy just never works out well for those who take to it.
And now we have Life of Crime, written and directed by Daniel Schechter (based on a novel by the immensely popular as well as well respected author Elmore Leonard titled The Switch), the latest variation on the O’Henry short story, The Ransom of Red Chief, in which someone is kidnapped whom the one being extorted the ransom would be just as happy if they were never returned.
It’s basically, in many ways, a variation on Ruthless People. But Life of Crime has its own story line that couldn’t possibly be confused with that Bette Midler/Danny Devito laugh fest, as well as its own calm, dry humor and style.
(As a side note, Life of Crime was originally slated for production in 1986 with Diane Keaton in the lead. But once the just a bit too similar in premise movie that made famous the line “Debbie can’t talk right now, my dick’s in her mouth” was released, the project was put into turnaround.)
The story revolves around one Frank Dawson (a now pudgy Tim Robbins—when he has a sex scene now, he wears a wife beater to bed), a businessman who has amassed a fortune in 1970’s terms by way of, let us say, less than honest real estate deals. He now has a mistress, Melanie (the perky Isla Fisher), and so wants to divorce his wife, Mickey (Jennifer Anniston).
Before he can, two men, Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yassin Bey, previously Mos Def), who know about Frank’s secret stash, abduct Mickey, with the help of one of the stupidest neo Nazi’s you’ll meet in some time, Richard (Mark Boone Junior, who is very good, really, he is, but still, I kept thinking he must have gotten the part because John Goodman wasn’t available).
Mix ups, wit and best laid plans, etc., ensue.
Life of Crime is not the most energetic of Leonard adaptations. It has all the elements of a farce, but could also have used a bit more of that genre’s forward momentum.
At the same time, it’s very entertaining and ultimately satisfying. The plot is one that after the movie is over, you may have a hard time relating exactly how things played out, but you’ll remember it all made perfect sense while you were watching. It’s well thought out in many ways (thank you, Leonard) and takes various twists and turns, some of which you see coming, some you don’t, and for the ones you do, that’s still part of the fun.
Certainly much of the success of the film has to go to a strong ensemble cast. Everyone does what they are supposed to do, but all seem to do it as if they aren’t even trying. That’s not a negative. Everyone’s marvelous, even Anniston, who is not the most exciting of screen presences. But she is growing older with grace and looks very good in her middle age.
And there’s something about the flicker of fear that you can see in her character’s eyes when Frank gets drunk and belligerent—an indication that maybe things are even a bit worse than we think.
But the greatest charm of the movie has to come from the connection between Louis and Melanie as their relationship progresses from abductor/abductee to love. Hawkes and Anniston have a very sweet chemistry that makes this absurd turn quite believable.
And Hawkes is just one of those actors, like Steve Buscemi and Adam Driver, who are not handsome, but in the right situation and through sheer will power, are believable as being sexy to women. And maybe Hawkes is no Cary Grant, but as demonstrated here and in his earlier film The Sessions, he has as much charm as that star of Hollywood’s golden age.
With Will Forte, who in his seer sucker suits and unironic mustaches, seems born to play creeps from the 1970’s.
At one point in Frank, a new absurdist comedy about a musician/composer/songwriter who wears a fake head (played by Michael Fassbender—I guess the Jack in the Box guy had a prior commitment—with one of those slurry, flat accents the British often use in doing American), a character tries to explain Frank and his head and how he eats, sleeps and works in it, finally resigning in frustration, saying you just have to go with it.
Fair enough. And true enough.
So I went with it.
But after awhile, it quickly became clear that I couldn’t really go with it, though the reasons had almost nothing to do with the conceit of one of the main characters always wearing a fiberglass noggin.
Frank is a movie that one would call quirky. It has a quirky central idea (that false noodle thingamabob), quirky characters, and a quirky plot.
And it’s certainly original and seems to be a movie made based on a personal vision of the filmmakers involved (screenplay by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan and directed by Leonard Abrahamson, based on the character Frank Sidebottom created by the British comedian Chris Sievey who became popular in the 1990’s).
But it has a couple of issue that aren’t quirky, most of whom reside in the central character of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). For some odd and ironic reason, he’s the most realistic of the characters while being the least realistic of them as well.
And by that I mean that while the other, non-realistic characters seem to feel very genuine within the context and style of the movie, Jon’s character never makes a lick of sense. And I don’t think it’s Gleeson’s fault, either (he’s done some nice work in Calvary and True Grit). His character just never becomes a believable person, but is actually little more than a construct for the writers and director to use to make the movie go the way they need it to.
Jon is a working class wonk who wants to write songs, but hasn’t been able to. He plays keyboard, though, and through a series of quirky (that word again) plot manipulations, he ends up joining Frank’s band.
Frank’s music is quite different from Jon’s. It’s more conceptual and there is something quite intriguing about it. At first I was frustrated at listening to it because it never seemed to come together. But at one point it does and then one can see what someone like Jon might see in it.
But Jon is ambitious. And this is where his character is never remotely convincing. He becomes a sort of Richard III, desperate to become the center of the band, and I just never bought it. It just never seemed to organically grow out of his somewhat nebbishy character. Everything he does seems forced and never quite plausible.
And so the least quirky character is also the least realistic one. And this really stops the movie from really rising above what it is.
The strongest performance is given by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Clara, Frank’s main emotional support. Gyllenhaal plays her as Dracula’s Daughter with a touch of Frau Blucher (neighhhhhhhhhh). She tears into the role with a certain fierceness and if no one else may seem to understand what exactly is going on, she acts as if she has it all figured out, and with a vengeance.
The cast is filled out with Don, the manager and you got to just go with it guy (Scoot McNairy, who seems to be developing a lot more personality since I first saw him in Monsters), and two backup musicians, Francois Civil and Carla Azar (two French actors who play their roles with all the snootiness of a pair of Gallic waiters).
Because Jon’s character never really makes sense and so much of the story is devoted to his story (when it should probably be more Frank’s), the movie never really feels like it’s going anywhere.
It’s not that there aren’t some nice moments. Frank’s nervous breakdown at the South by Southwest festival is emotionally scary. And when Clara and the two backup musicians end up performing old folk standards at an almost empty bar (she sings On Top of Old Smokey as if in slow-mo), there is something affecting about their act.
But though the ultimate solution as to why Frank wears the mask is supposed to be a revelation and elicit deep emotional reverberations, it just seems a bit of a let down, a bit formulaic, anti-climactic and not the least bit quirky.
In other words, the less quirky the movie becomes, the less interesting and more been there done that it ends up.
And I had no idea what the denouement was supposed to tell us.
The movie started out as an adaptation of some of the writings of Jon Ronson, who was a member of Sidebottom’s band.