Life of Crime

Some projects take a lifetime to complete. The 2021 documentary “Life of Crime 1984-2020” (8 p.m., HBO, TV-MA) brings an end to a three-part cinema verite project four decades in the making.

Documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert (“Baghdad ER”) started this project with video cameras back in the mid-1980s, following three very low-level criminals on the streets of Newark, N.J., as they went about their daily life of shoplifting and other petty crimes, all in the effort to maintain growing drug habits and feed their sprawling families and circles of dependents.

This film includes footage from the first films, “One Year in the Life of Crime” (1989) and “Life of Crime 2” (1998).

Alpert’s insinuation into these men’s lives is disturbing in its intimacy. His cameras follow them into five-and-dimes as they boost random items such as unfashionable shirts and irregular sheets. He’s at home with them when one of the subjects starts beating his pregnant girlfriend. The camera’s presence raises all sorts of questions. Where is the line between witness/documentarian and accessory? Two of the film’s subjects don’t survive to the end of the process.

These are not terribly bright people. How much pressure did they feel to “perform” for “Life,” year after year?

On the other hand, “Life of Crime” is both a cautionary tale and a corrective. So many scripted crime dramas make petty criminals seem interesting, funny and even glamorous to keep the audience engaged. “Life” depicts a daily grind of boosting spectacularly low-hanging fruit. Don’t go looking for the wit of even the pettiest “Sopranos” characters.

There are passages in the book “Donnie Brasco” by Joseph D. Pistone when the author tries to describe the wearisome lack of education and imagination of the petty criminal. “Life of Crime” asks you to live with them for hours, representing about 40 years of going nowhere.

It’s worth noting with HBO Max’s “The Many Saints of Newark,” the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and now the conclusion of “Life,” HBO has presented three major projects set in New Jersey’s biggest city. When did HBO become the Newark network?

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Kevin McDonough can be reached at