MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Eddie Murphy (Ray Gibson), Martin Lawrence (Claude Banks), Obba Babatunde (Willie Long), Ned Beatty (Dexter Wilkins), Bernie Mac (Jangle Leg), Rick James (Spanky), Clarence Williams III (Winston Hancock)
"Life" is a surprisingly sentimental comedy about two men wrongly sentenced to life at hard labor in a Mississippi state prison. It is nothing like what you would expect from a high profile vehicle starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, and it is certainly not what the advertising has made it out to be. There are many humorous passages, and even a number of laugh-out-loud moments. However, the overall tone of the film is more restrained than over-the-top; some parts are even quite somber, and it somtimes has an almost gritty, dusty feel.
Murphy stars as Ray Gibson, a fast-talking, small-time hood in Harlem in 1932. Through bad luck and circumstance, he ends up driving to Mississippi with Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence), an uptight soon-to-be bank teller, to buy $180 worth of illegal booze for a New York bootlegger (Rick James) to whom they both owe money. While in Mississippi, they are framed for murder by the local sheriff, and are sentenced to life in prison.
This set-up takes almost half an hour, and the movie doesn't really find itself until Ray and Claude begin their new lives as inmates in the hard labor Mississippi state prison. Being from New York City and innocent of the crime for which they are imprisoned, Ray and Claude consider themselves above the other inmates. That changes quickly, however, as Ray and Claude realize that they are imprisoned for life, and nothing is going to change that. The Mississippi prison farm becomes their sole existence, and reinvents their own identities in the process.
"Life" is a really a movie about friendship--about how two men with nothing in common are forced to live the rest of their lives together side-by-side--and about how that friendship evolves over the years. Prison movies are almost always about the camaraderie that builds between people locked away together, and that camaraderie is usually the result of their bearing the hard times together and leaning on each other for support. The best of those films ("Cool Hand Luke," "The Shawshank Redemption") truly make you feel the pain of imprisonment, and make you understand how men of different colors and creeds can come together under such circumstances.
Interestingly, "Life" never quite achieves this. Its vision of life on a Mississippi chain gang is surprisingly soft, with only minimal heartache and anguish. When Claude and Ray tangle with the biggest guy in prison (Michael "Bear" Taliferro), it culminates in one fistfight for pride, and then everybody is friends again. For a group of murderers, these guys are pretty easygoing. As a matter of fact, almost everyone in the prison gets along quite well, and the only real eruptions occur between Claude and Ray. Even the prison warden, a hard-nosed redneck with a shotgun played with relish by Nick Cassavetes, is given sentimental overtones and allowed to grow old with the others.
This isn't particularly surprising, since this is the kind of film that soft-shoes over issues of institutionalized racism with humor and one-liners. Of course, the fact that the entire movie is really about two men whose lives are wasted in prison for no good reason is never really addressed--it's given, like the racism, as a simple but unfortunate fact of life. The movie doesn't want to dwell on such issues, but rather to explore how its characters live their lives within those confines.
The movie covers more than 60 years, and we get to watch Claude and Ray grow old together. The slow path into old age is created with excellent make-up effects by Rick Baker and the wonderful performances by Murphy and Lawrence. "Life" could have easily sunk into silly highjinks and shallow jokes, but the two lead performers make their characters consistently interesting. They are like a prison version of "The Odd Couple," but with additional layers of characterization because we are allowed to watch them as their relationship evolves with age--they go from bickering young hotshots to bickering, grizzled old jailbirds without missing a beat.
"Life" was directed by Ted Demme ("The Ref," "Beautiful Girls"), who has experience with talky comedy-dramas. He knows that he has two exceptionally talented men in his leading roles, and he mostly sits back and lets them do their work. There are a few moments where he is allowed to shine as a director, such as when he shows the passage of time by allowing characters we have grown to know literally disappear before our eyes.
Not all of the jokes in the screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (who are probably still nursing the wounds from their last screenplay, the critically savaged "Destiny Turns on the Radio") hit quite on-target, but watching Murphy and Lawrence go at each other with the verbal ferocity of two wild animals gives the movie its kick. Without their talent and energy, watching "Life" could have been like serving a life sentence. Fortunately, they are up to the task, and they steer "Life" away from being a one-joke fish-out-of-water movie into something more interesting and complex: a comedy with overtones of heart and humanity.
©1999 James Kendrick