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Movie Credits Buy It!


Review by Elias Savada
Posted 30 April 1999

life.jpg (8817 bytes)   Directed by Ted Demme.

Starring Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence,
Obba Babatundé, Ned Beatty, Bernie Mac,
Miguel A. Núñez, Jr., Clarence Williams III,
Bokeem Woodbine, Barry Shabaka Henley,
Brent Jennings, Guy Torry,
Lisa Nicole Carson, and Rick James.

Screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone.

This new prison dramedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence (previously together in 1992’s crude comedy Boomerang) as a pair of wrongfully-accused grumpy old convicts stretches out the jokes for as long as their prison term, pondering over 65 years of incarceration with the blandness of a piece of dry toast for breakfast. This is no western omelet, but, in the words of Farmer Hodgett, "That’ll Do" to topple The Matrix and climb to the top of the box office food chain for at least it’s opening weekend. If you’re looking for comedy nutrition here, you’ll find yourself in stand-up anorexic hell.

Screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone are back from the dead following their 1995 debacle Destiny Turns on the Radio with this pseudo-epic directed by Ted Demme (Monument Avenue, Beautiful Girls, The Ref), who saves the film’s funniest moments as outtakes during the film’s end credits. Too bad the whole film wasn’t rejected footage (maybe it was). Is that the mark of a great piece of entertainment? Not if you have to endure 110 minutes for a pick-me-up on the way out the door. Dragging its feet between I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (released the same year that Life finds its "murderers" caught up in the criminal injustice system) and the camaraderie and bleakness of The Shawshank Redemption, Life instead is a sailboat stranded in a windless sea, a comedy slant on The Bridge on the River Kwai sinking without the bridge or the river. On the plus side, as slim as the positives are, production Designer Dan Bishop, Lucy Corrigan’s costumes, Rick Baker’s special makeup effects, and the camera work by Geoffrey Simpson contribute well to the clean, evocative look of the multiple period settings that age the characters as they move closed to present day.

The movie starts out pleasantly enough, with sweet-talking Ray Gibson (Murphy) hustling and picking pockets in Depression Era Harlem. He self-servingly salvages the life of morose Claude Banks (Lawrence), one of his victims and otherwise a would-be bank teller in search of a clean-cut, middle class existence and season tickets to the Yankees. Now indebted to a swanky gangster and night club owner (Rick "Super Freak" James), the unlikely duo drive South to pick up 36 cases of bootleg moonshine that brings them face-to-face with a corrupt and bigoted legal system. Stopping at a boozy blues shack to imbibe some local flavor, Ray gets scammed at a game of cards, losing his car fare home and his daddy’s musical, silver pocket watch, a plot device that screams "I’ll be back." Meanwhile the innocent Claude donates his last two bucks and then some to the seductive Sylvia (ER and Ally McBeal’s Lisa Nicole Carson). The local sheriff does a deadly number on the card shark, then trumps up Ray and Claude on a conrived murder charge. The boys’ hooch run instead becomes a one-way, lifelong ticket to Camp 8 of the Mississippi penal system. Bummer.

So, 30 minutes into the film, we find our New York fish out of their liquid element, digging ditches and picking asses, er axes. Their alternating funny/sad/poignant escapades are the lowlights that carry them through the remainder of the film, their home until the dawn of the next millennium looking more like a glossed-over summer camp than the horrible, spirit-breaking experience it actually was. Even "the hole," the solitary confinement shacks, don’t look at that uncomfortable. Invisible barriers (much like modern electronic dog fences) and stern talk generally prevent any escapes, although a few dumb attempts are made, either for inane comic effect or for a quick visual gag. Remember, no such border warnings have been issued to you, the viewer, and you are free to leave at any time during the screening of this movie. Please be sure not to leave any personal items behind.

The ensemble criminal elements and redneck jailhouse supervisors (including Nick Cassavettes) are brought into the picture to provide foils for the stars to bounce jokes, sentiment, and fantasy off. The former are generally of the profane and bickering variety, the middle deals with the hatreds and friendships that grow and fade (literally) as some of the inmates move on to the graveyard abutting the prison, while the latter happens within the initial 1930s segment, as Ray envisions his new "friends" having a rip-snorting time enjoying steak, sizzle, and stakes gambling at the opening of his snazzy, jazzy Boom Boom Room (with whipping-boy Claude along as a bus boy).

The pin-stripers jump 12 years ahead at the hour mark -- to a world struggling with World War II. The only battle on the Southern home front is the warden attempting to have his inmates beat a rival group of prisoners in baseball. Not exactly earth-shattering, but the arrival of Can’t Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine), a deaf yet strikingly muscular fellow, brings hope to Claude and Ray when they discover he can naturally hit the ball a mile (when he’s not eyeing the current prison warden’s daughter). Their optimism of a pardon to accompany the ballplayer to his introduction to the Negro Leagues is quickly dashed, but one of the few genuine attempts at pathos occurs when the warden’s daughter gives birth to colored baby and, to protect the batsman from loosing his reprieve, the other convicts all step forward and confess to fathering the child. Yeah, it’s not an original idea (very little in the slapdash script is), but at least, for a moment, something worked.

The film leaps forward 28 years to 1972. The odd couple, on the outs for several decades, rekindle their friendship and find work and sympathy in the house of Warden Dexter Wilkins (Ned Beatty), who helps correct an ages old miscarriage of justice before inconsiderately leaving Ray and Claude on freedom’s door without the key.

Poof and it’s 27 years later. A final joke and a merciful fade-out. I leave my theater cell and head home. Life’s too short to waste your time on Life.

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