Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Life

By Marjorie Baumgarten

APRIL 19, 1999: 

D: Ted Demme; with Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatundé, Nick Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Clarence Williams III, Bokeem Woodbine, Rick James, Anthony Anderson, Michael "Bear" Taliferro, Lisa Nicole Carson. (R, 108 min.)

This odd mixture of comedy and prison drama works better than might be expected at first glance. By not going all out in either direction, Life manages to find a comfortable blend that exercises the comic talents of costars Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence while also reining in their wilder instincts with measured dramatic storytelling. Last paired in 1992's Boomerang, Murphy and Lawrence play an Oscar-and-Felix-like odd couple who are stuck with each other's company for the rest of their lives when they are sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime they didn't commit. One instance back in 1932 of being together in the wrong place at the wrong time has caused these hustling New Yorkers to live out their remaining 55 years in a Mississippi prison camp. This movie prison stretches all bounds of believability: It's filled with lots of free time and ball playing broken up only occasionally by spates of hard labor, no fences protect its perimeters, the inmates are all a fairly agreeable bunch despite the fact that they are all in there for murder, the penalty for an escape attempt is one night in the hole, and so on. Yet the point of Life is not an exposé on prison conditions but rather an illustration of the bonds of friendship that can develop between people who may not actually like each other. As foils, Murphy and Lawrence are great together, Murphy playing the fast-talking hustler, Ray, and Lawrence playing the more sedate and fussy Claude. Murphy breaks into comic riffs now and again but is mostly held in check by director Ted Demme, who, in Monument Ave. and The Ref, also guided comedian Denis Leary to his only great screen performances. In fact, the large and varied cast provides great support work in this movie, which relies more on character moments than on forward plot development or the dramatic heartache of falsely accused prisoners. This eclectic story structure works much better here than it did in the disjointed Destiny Turns on the Radio, the last film written by Life's screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Both Lawrence and Murphy seem inspired by recent activities in their choice of these particular screen roles: Lawrence perhaps seeking a calmer and more subdued role following his highly publicized meltdown in the middle of a public thoroughfare, and Murphy (who provided the original idea for the movie), inspired by the possibilities of special-effects makeup in Dr. Dolittle, opted to make a movie in which his character has to age nearly 60 years. Rick Baker's effects work is truly sensational; his spooky reconstruction of Lawrence and Murphy as 90-year-old men may be the most realistic aspect of the movie. This Life may not be everlasting, but it sure gives us a good run for the our money.
3.0 stars

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