Disappointing prison tale Life lacks comedy, drama

Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, is a new comedy-drama with only two problems: it’s not terribly funny, and there’s precious little drama. Almost all of the movie’s funny moments have been shown in trailers and television commercials, and the intended drama is weak and sloppily executed. It didn’t have to be this way. Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful showed how a movie could set itself in terrible circumstances and give its viewers some poignant laughs. Plus, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence have some experience with buddy comedies, having made such hits as 48 Hours and Bad Boys, and director Ted Demme (The Ref) knows how to make comedy-dramas. Yet while the movie is reasonably amusing, on the whole it doesn’t add up to much of anything.

The first third or so of Life isn’t bad, setting up Murphy and Lawrence’s odd-couple characters in 1932. Murphy plays Ray, a small-time hustler and wiseguy, and Lawrence plays Claude, a serious, uptight fellow looking forward to a new job as a clerk. Both men owe debts to the local mob boss, and so are forced to drive to Mississippi on a bootlegging run, then wind up being framed for murder, and are given life sentences. It’s not as contrived as it sounds, and these scenes are fun to watch because we get the usual friction between two guys who of course dislike each other at first sight.

It’s in the prison scenes that the movie slowly falls apart. The jail in this movie bears little resemblance to what I would expect from a Southern prison in the 1930s. After an initial period of tension with the other inmates, Ray and Claude soon make themselves right at home in the prison community, and by the movie’s second half all the inmates are one big happy family. One of the movie’s most unrealistic aspects was its depiction of prison homosexuality: Life suggests that prison was a haven for gays in the 1930s and ’40s, at a time when they would not have been accepted in the outside world. While this is certainly a politically correct notion, it seems very hard to believe that Southern inmates would have been as tolerant as they are portrayed here.

As for Claude and Ray, they make a few half-hearted attempts to escape, play baseball for a while, have an argument and refuse to speak to each other for forty years. If this sounds too simple, that’s because it is. The whole script seems to be running on half-power, as if the writers came up with a bunch of clever ideas for things they’d like to have in the movie and then forgot to flesh them out. For example, one of Ray’s major escape attempts, involving an airplane, is shown in the midst of a musical montage as a joke. Another subplot, involving a prisoner who turns out to be a baseball prodigy, seems to have been added in order to set up a sight gag, a Spartacus reference and finally an excuse for Claude and Ray to hate each other for a few decades.

Eddie Murphy has been funny in heavy makeup before, especially in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor. Unfortunately, the extreme old-age makeup Murphy and Lawrence wear in the last third of the movie tends to restrict the comedy, as the two actors spend more time squinting and mumbling their lines than actually doing anything funny. They seem to be aiming for black versions of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, but it isn’t very convincing.

If the comedy is underdone, the movie’s drama is just plain sloppy. A major problem is abruptness, especially in a climactic scene at the end in which the evil old white guy who put them in prison in the first place turns up again and is quickly killed, with little dramatic tension. Similarly, the decades-long grudge that keep Ray and Claude from speaking to each other lasts about five minutes on screen, so it isn’t terribly powerful when they reconcile. The movie also insists on talking about plot developments rather than showing them, such as certain supporting character’s marriages or deaths. While I understand the difficulties involved in condensing sixty-five years of story into a two-hour movie, it has been done elsewhere with less incompetence.

There are some interesting racial themes inherent in this movie, as Ray and Claude are framed because of racism and only manage to escape through cooperation and cleverness. However, the themes are not really developed or built up in any particular way. In the end, Life trivializes prison, making the whole ordeal Ray and Claude experience into a prolonged lame joke. Instead of telling a poignant story about salvaging friendship from a pair of destroyed lives, Life shows us prison as a major inconvenience, in which the best mode of coping is the snappy one-liner. The movie isn’t terrible, but it is a definite disappointment.