Directed by Ted Demme
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Rick James, Brent Jennings, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Bokeem Woodbine, Clarence Williams III, Ned Beatty, Lisa Nicole Carson, Nick Cassavetes, Poppy Montgomery.
1999 108 minutes
Rated: (for extreme profanity, mild violence, and a brief scene of gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 17, 1999.
Like several of Eddie Murphy's past films (1998's "Holy Man"), "Life" is a perfect example of a film with an identity crisis. Let Murphy loose and he can be a dynamite comic (1996's "The Nutty Professor"), but too often he is mired in an uncomfortable mixture of comedy and drama. If Murphy wants to be treated seriously, why not make a straightforward dramatic piece, instead of intermingling it with juvenile comedy, and vice versa?
Spanning 60-odd years and beginning in the Prohibition era of 1932, Murphy stars as smooth con man Ray Gibson who, along with straight-laced banker Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence), finds himself owing a large debt to a bootlegger (Rick James). Paired together to travel from their home of Manhattan to the deep south of Mississippi on a bootlegging journey, they unwittingly witness the death of a black man caused by racism, and then are accused of the murder, sentenced to the Mississippi State Penitentiary for life. As the decades fly by and they remain locked up, Claude and Ray's friendship survives many different hurdles as they begin to suspect that they are going to die without ever being free again.
Does this sound like a rousing yuk-fest? I think not, and although "Life" does boast a few humorous moments (I liked, for example, an early scene where they enter into a "No Coloreds" restaurant and the waitress tells them that they only have "whites-only pie"), the overall story is more depressing than anything else, since we know what we are basically watching is two innocent mens' lives being wasted away. In something like 1994's "The Shawshank Redemption," this idea worked because the subject matter was treated with a realism and intelligence. In "Life," it is mostly an excuse to give us one-liners heavily laced with the F-word (and worse).
"Life" also has severe pacing problems, as it often has a tendency to be marginally entertaining one minute, and then brain-numbingly dull and misguided the next. This major problem probably owes itself to the fact that there is no story arc to the film, nor is there much of a "story" to begin with. Sure, we follow Claude and Ray through an epic 60 years, but not much really happens in those years, and, at one point, a whole 28 years passes by within a two-minute montage! The only good thing about that is I knew the sooner Murphy and Lawrence began to get their faces more heavily applied with "old man" make up, the sooner it would be over.
Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence are strong presences throughout, and have at least fairly substantial material to work with. Murphy, especially, rolls things off his tongue at such a rapid rate that it is usually very humorous, and apparent that fellow comic actor Chris Tucker is only imitating him. Lawrence, meanwhile, portrays the more touching of the two characters as he is most affected by the prison experience and sees many of his future plans ultimately shot down, including his love relationship with a fetching young woman (Lisa Nicole Carson). Come to think of it, maybe the movie should have simply been retitled "Eddie and Martin," as written right above the "Life" title on the poster. The movie focuses so much on the two that the rest of the many characters are either sorely underused or come off as mere afterthoughts.
Aside from the two central actors, also making an impression is the music score by Wyclef Jean, making his film scoring debut. It is clear that Jean worked very hard on the music to make it effective and put in precisely the right place, and it admittedly does work.
By the time the ending arrived in "Life," without giving too much away, Claude and Ray are ninety-years-old, and although everything concludes on an upbeat note, it's a little difficult to pass by the reality that these two characters are going to be dead soon. Sure, they've hung on to each other's friendship, but that's not enough for me to walk out of the theater singing a happy tune. Honestly, not only did the film turn out to be a downer for me, but as I write this a mere eighty minutes after seeing it, much of the film has already exited my long-term-memory. After the disasterous "Dr. Dolittle," the well-meaning misfire, "Holy Man," and the mediocre, forgettable "Life," perhaps Murphy should begin to choose his feature film projects a little more wisely. After all, as this movie can certainly attest to, life is short.
©1999 by Dustin Putman