Rated R - Running time: 1:48 - Released 4/16/99

Given the reputations of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, and the trailers promoting their new collaborative effort, I expected Ted Demme's Life to be a newer version of Stir Crazy: a yuk-it-up comedy full of bathroom humor and cheap laughs. I was astounded. Though it is hysterically funny at times, and incorporates some of Murphy's and Lawrence's "soul man slapstick," it's also an insightful and well-made film about the life journey taken by two innocent men caught up in unfortunate circumstances. There are good performances by a large supporting cast, and the script (by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone) is smart and unpretentious.

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

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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