Life Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Welcome to Mississippi State Prison, where you will be provided with plenty of opportunity to repay your debt to society through hard labor.
Life logo

"Life" is confusing. This latest teaming of comedians Eddie Murphy ("Holy Man") and Martin Lawrence ("The Thin Line Between Love and Hate") since 1992's "Boomerang" never really seems to come together into a cohesive whole, unevenly straddling the line between uproarious comedy and provocative pathos. Without enough truly 'laugh out loud' scenes to placate the two comedians' fans, or sufficient narrative depth to interest more seriously-minded audiences, this misbegotten comedy winds up being the equivalent of cinematic junk food-- it will satisfy the craving for entertainment for awhile, but will have been forgotten after the lights come back up.

Life?! What do you mean 'life'?! I ain't doin' life!
Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence

Spanning over a time frame of sixty years, "Life" follows the misadventures of small-time hustler Ray Gibson (Murphy) and straight-laced bank teller Claude Banks (Lawrence). The year is 1932, during the height of the Prohibition, with both men find themselves in the swanky Club Spanky's in New York City. At first, Ray tries to settle his debts with the club's owner Spanky (Rick James) by lifting Claude's wallet-- however, Claude has some outstanding debts of his own and has just been relieved of his cash by some other loan sharks. But because Spanky doesn't take unpaid debts too lightly, he threatens to have both men 'swimming with the fishes' as repayment.

Lisa Nicole Carson of AllyMcBealevenshowsupinLife

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the fast-talking Ray manages to convince Spanky that he and Claude can repay their outstanding tabs with a Mississippi bootlegging run. With a truck, a full tank of gas, and several hundred of dollars in cash, the two unlikely partners in crime head down South to pick up the load of illegal hooch. However, the short trip ends up taking a lot longer than expected when both men are wrongfully accused of murder, and wind up serving life sentences in the Mississippi State Prison. What then follows are six decades of misadventures as the two men unsuccessfully attempt to escape their imprisonment on numerous occasions. Along the way, they come across a number of colorful characters, including the cruel prison warden (Nick Cassavetes of "Face/Off"), a kind-hearted prison superintendent (Ned Beatty of "He Got Game"), a mute with an unbelievable batting arm (Bokeem Woodbine of "The Big Hit"), and a hulking bully (Michael 'Bear' Taliferro of "Armageddon").

"Life" started as an idea by Eddie Murphy that was developed into a feature-length screenplay with the help of screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (who collaborated for the forgettable "Destiny Turns on the Radio"). And while it seems that they were trying to make a somewhat mature film that speaks to the value of enduring friendship and the endurance of the human will under adverse conditions, the final product ends up more as a choppy collection of vignettes that go in several different directions.

The only way we get out of here is through the morgue or the cemetery.

On the one hand, the film attempts for an epic feel, documenting how conditions inside the prison remains relatively the same while the world outside witnesses World War II, the civil rights movement, and other momentous events. There are some truly poignant scenes in which the characters are mystified, and even frightened, by how much the outside world has changed, such as one character who feels that the world has nothing more to offer him after so many years of imprisonment. One memorable sequence calls to mind "Kiss of the Spider Woman", in which Ray shares with his fellow inmates his dream to one day open a nightclub in New York, Ray's Boom-Boom Room, and they all imagine the roles that they would each play in such a place.

On the other hand, just when "Life" actually looks like it's about to say something profound or reveal some fundamental truth, the script dispenses some juvenile humor that dissipates the narrative momentum, usually along the lines of 'f-this' and 'f-that'. Scenes that are on the verge of making this film more than just a raucous comedy end up being nothing more than a set-up for the next joke. And while Murphy and Lawrence play well off one another, with the former being the flamboyant fast-talker and the latter the meek straight man, the film's episodic structure raises and drops potentially interesting subplots with such alarming frequency that it is difficult to really make a connection to their characters. By the time the film finally makes it to the end and the struggle for freedom is finally over, you really don't feel inspired by what has transpired.

You really bummed me out... that's a terrible story!

On the surface, "Life" seems to be a turning point for Murphy and Lawrence, an ambitious attempt to move onto more seriously-minded material. Unfortunately, the scatterbrained script tries to go for cheap laughs that amount to little-- even as a parody of the prison film genre, "Life" is unimpressive. Unless you are a big fan of either Murphy or Lawrence, I would suggest another recent film that did a much better job mixing humor and pathos with a point-- "Life is Beautiful".

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

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