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Toronto: ‘Life of Crime’ Closes 38th Fest, Audience Awards Announcement Sunday (Analysis)

By Scott Feinberg

September 15, 2013

THR’s awards analyst dissects the Elmore Leonard adaptation, which stars Jennifer Aniston, and identifies the top contenders for the fest’s most coveted prizes.

TORONTO — The 38th Toronto International Film Festival — my seventh — came to a close on Saturday night, following 10 days of wall-to-wall programming, with the world premiere of Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime. The crime-dramedy, which Schechter adapted from the 1978 novel The Switch, by the great novelist Elmore Leonard (who died just three weeks ago), stars Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Tim Robbins, Mos Def, Will Forte, Isla Fisher and Mark Boone, Jr. It was greeted with lots of laughs throughout its 90-minute runtime and warm applause at the end. And it will probably reach mainstream audiences next year, when Lionsgate/Roadside, which picked up its U.S. distribution rights during the fest, is expected to release it.

Life of Crime, a prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) that’s set 15 years earlier but revolves around the same two bumbling ex-cons, is Schechter’s third feature. While introducing the film, he revealed that he had written a spec script of the story before he ever owned its rights and then sent it to Leonard for feedback. Leonard, to his surprise, read it and offered not only positive feedback but also the rights that Schechter desired — provided that Schechter could assemble a cast worthy of it. Schechter did just that, shot the film and submitted it to TIFF. Leonard died before he could see the finished film, but he was aware of its acceptance into the festival and its assignment of the closing night slot, Schechter said, and was very excited about that. “This is my love letter to him,” the writer-director told the crowd, which included members of the Leonard family.

The film itself is a bit out there: set in late-1970s Detroit, it follows two ex-cons (Hawkes and Def) who, with the aid of a neo-Nazi (Boone), decide to kidnap the wife (Aniston) of a real estate developer (Robbins) for the purposes of extorting a $1 million ransom from him. The problem is that the man can’t stand his wife, is cheating on her with another woman (Fisher) and plans to divorce her anyway, and is therefore not particularly inclined to cooperate. The woman, meanwhile, is not particularly happy with him anyway, and finds herself being pursued by a married loser who belongs to the same country club (Forte), while pining for some better alternative. Over the course of this farce — which tonally feels something like Burn After Reading (2008), which premiered at this fest a few years ago — she ends up bonding with one of her kidnappers.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only film to play at this fest that focuses on a complex relationship that develops between a kidnapped woman and her male kidnapper: Jason Reitman’s Labor Day does, as well. It’s hard to know how to feel about films like these in a post-Ariel Castro world. Both films have moments that are a bit uncomfortable, but also truly laugh-out-loud moments — Life of Crime, I dare say, even more than the higher-profile Labor Day. Anyway, Aniston’s name should get people in seats — as we’ve seen this month with the film We’re the Millers — even if she doesn’t have all that much to do in this film but look pretty. As for awards, I suppose there’s a chance the HFPA might eventually fill one of its musical-or-comedy slots with it, but who knows? We’ll have to see what its competition looks like when it comes out.

Prior to the screening, TIFF organizers shared some stats about its 2013 edition: 432,000 people — including 5,000 industry reps and 1,200 members of the press — checked out more than 200 films representing more than 70 countries over the fest’s 10 days, 30 of which were sold during the fest. The fest also established a new ticket-sales record.

On Sunday, TIFF will announce its 2013 award winners, including, most prominently, the recipient of its audience award. The 35 previous winners of that prize went on to score 113 Oscar nominations, including 11 for best picture: Chariots of Fire (1981), The Big Chill(1983), Places in the Heart (1984), Shine (1996), Life Is Beautiful (1998), American Beauty(1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Precious (2009), The King’s Speech (2010) and Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012) — and nine for best foreign language film. (Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, and The King’s Speech all won.)

My hunch is that this year’s winner will be either Warner Bros.’ Gravity, The Weinstein Co.’s Philomena, Universal’s Rush or the tremendous crowd-pleaser Can a Song Save Your Life?, which TWC acquired during the fest. (Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years a Slave was probably the best-reviewed film at the fest, but it’s so gutwrenching and bleak that I doubt it will be the people’s choice.

If it is, that will be a major triumph for the film that already has the most momentum in this year’s Oscar race.) Meanwhile, I’d be very surprised if Sony Pictures Classics’ Tim’s Vermeer doesn’t take the documentary audience award — if not the main audience award itself. (The last doc to win the top prize was Best Boy 34 years ago.)

Of course, in either category we could wind up with a completely out-of-left-field choice, as was the case two years ago when Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now? claimed the overall audience award.