Life (1999)

D: Ted Demme
S: Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence

Surprisingly self-important comic drama which (unfortunately) plays more like a clumsy variant on The Shawshank Redemption than Stir Crazy. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play a couple of guys who, through a misadventure which takes far too long to get through, end up sentenced to life in a Southern jail. Expected racial clichés do turn up, but the film steers away from them (and, indeed, away from any significant source of comic conflict) in favour of attempting to develop a bittersweet love/hate relationship between the two men over the decades they share together in prison. The tale is narrated in flashback and ends on a predictable punchline, but on the whole it is a narrative which plods along step by step without ever coming up with a surprise. Murphy is the exuberant con man (whose initial scenes seem to come straight of out Harlem Nights) who improvises his way through every situation (very, very pale echoes of 48 Hrs.). Lawrence is the straight arrow who gets drawn into trouble because of Murphy and resents it. Not much changes in the course of the film. Scenes of them trading insults quickly become tiresome, and knowing they will continue all the way to old age, the audience has little to look forward to. Though there is one brief wrinkle in the power structure of their relationship towards the end (when Lawrence becomes a trusted servant of new warden Ned Beaty), it doesn't significantly affect the outcome, and on the whole, the film is tedious and unfunny.

The most bizarre thing about the film is the gravity with which it approaches material which lacks the depth it assumes it has. Attempts at serious dialogue and quietly reflective scenes of character development (usually involving supporting characters, mind) seem inappropriate, especially when they are usually followed by unsuccessful 'comic' scenes involving abusive exchanges between Murphy and Lawrence or other miscellaneous bits of business. Issues such as torture, homosexuality, abandonment, betrayal, institutional exploitation, and of course justice and redemption are awkwardly worked in amid an insipid mix of fantasy and broad comedy. None of it works. The pace and tone are so badly misjudged that it never comes close to either drama or comedy, but alternates uncomfortably between both without ever doing justice to either.

On some level, there appear to have been serious intentions somewhere along the line. The film does seem relatively earnest in its attempts to deepen a high concept 'package' which would probably have played relatively well just as straight comedy (with a better script, of course). It touches on ideas which have been seen before in the prison movie genre, but most recently in The Shawshank Redemption and, to some extent, in its successor The Green Mile. However, just as both of those films had a tendency of self-importance, Life comes complete with an in-built assumption that such themes are automatically profound and grant dignity to the production. They aren't. Intentions alone do not make a good movie. In the absence of basic storytelling skills, believable characterisation, good dialogue (either funny or serious), and a general feeling that the entire film is just ambling along hoping Murphy and Lawrence will carry it, there is simply nothing to hang these themes, ideas, and intentions onto. Viewers will be either bored or frustrated, and though some diehard fans may get a kick out of one or two moments from Murphy (none of which they haven't seen before in better movies), there is not a lot here that is worth the admission fee, rental price, or the time it takes to watch the film. Avoid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.