Life begins, if you will, in Harlem in 1932. A sly con man named
Ray Gibson (Murphy) and a relatively straight arrow named Claude Banks (Lawrence)
have only one thing in common: They can't pay their tabs at Spanky's night
club. When they are about to be dealt some street justice, Ray makes a deal
with the proprietor to do some bootlegging for him. The two will travel
to Mississippi to pick up some premium moonshine and deliver it in 3 days.
But soon the two get into trouble again: They accidentally stumble upon
a dead man, and then the police stumble upon them.
They are convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and this was when
"life sentence" was taken literally. The rest of the film has
them growing old together in Mississippi State Prison Camp 8, making friends
and enemies with their fellow inmates, and attempting various escapes over
the years. There may be some sanitizing of the portrayal of prison life
(there are none of the atrocities we have seen in Sleepers and The
Shawshank Redemption), but it is clear that escape attempts and other
rule-breakings are dealt with sternly.
Besides good supporting performances all around, especially by Obba Babatundé
and Miguel A. Núñez Jr. as fellow inmates, Life is
technically above average. The old age makeup by Rick Baker is superlative
as usual; he knows there is more to aging someone than frosting the hair
and adding a few wrinkles. The costume design by Lucy W. Corrigan is evocative
of the changing periods of the film; also noteworthy is the production design
by Dan Bishop. There was obviously a concerted effort on his part to research
period building and automotive designs and various other set elements; the
entire film moves cohesively through the years. The cinematography (by Geoffrey
Simpson) and editing (by Jeffrey Wolf) also deserve notice there
are some really interesting camera angles and unconventional visual emphasis,
and some tricky cuts during the scenes showcasing Ramsey's and Stone's clever
dialogue. The soundtrack is quite enjoyable too, incorporating blues, rap,
and swing, as well as original music by Wyclef Jean.
Life is comparable to, perhaps, Fried Green Tomatoes, if Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had been involved. Murphy and Lawrence have a great connection, and their comic symbiosis makes for a truly enjoyable experience. The script and Demme's directing are highly sensitive to the changing face of race relations (and prison conditions) in the Deep South, and Demme doesn't fall into the trend of making the protagonists perfect and the villains purely evil. There are varying levels of racism in different characters, as in life, and some attitudes change as time goes on. The film contains plenty of foul language, as one would expect in any prison movie, but also great humor and some important messages about friendship and adversity. ****½
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