Combustible Celluloid
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With: Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatundé, Anthony Anderson, Rick James, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr, Ned Beatty, Clarence Williams III, Bokeem Woodbine, Nick Cassavetes, Heavy D., R. Lee Ermey, Sanaa Lathan
Written by: Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone
Directed by: Ted Demme
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and a shooting
Running Time: 108
Date: 04/13/1999

Life (1999)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jail Order

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One might expect Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence's new movie, Life, to follow in the raunchy footsteps of There's Something About Mary. But, as written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone and directed by Ted Demme (nephew of Jonathan), Life is a surprise that not only avoids typical trappings, but throws in a tinge of the bittersweet as well.

It's 1932 in Harlem. Eddie Murphy plays Ray, a two-bit pickpocket who tries to get in on as many scams as he can. Martin Lawrence plays Claude. A bank teller with a new girlfriend, Claude is on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, the two meet in a nightclub, and all hell breaks loose. To get out of trouble with the club owner/mob boss, they must drive to Mississippi to pick up some homemade booze for the club. Once there, the innocent pair find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and get sent to prison -- for life.

Although Claude and Ray start out as two-dimensional types, the movie spends more time than you would expect developing their characters and their relationship. After all, it has all the time in the world to spend with them -- a lifetime.

The movie doesn't waste time on prison movie cliches either. It begins with the hard-work sequences. Fine. They work hard. Then we see them playing softball, practicing to play against other prison camps. Okay. Then we see them having a couple of parties and visiting days. That seems reasonable. It may not be realistic, but it gives the movie a little variety. We get a subplot about a prisoner who becomes a great ballplayer and is drafted for the Negro leagues. We also get montages of "time passing" complete with images of Martin Luther King, JFK, Malcolm X, and Miles Davis. And, despite several attempts at escape, the pair remain in jail until their 90s. Rick Baker, who did the excellent makeup for The Nutty Professor, and designed Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, makes the actors look 90 with some of the very best age makeup I've ever seen.

At first, I wasn't sure if any of this worked for me. Eddie Murphy is one of my favorite comic actors, and I wanted to see him do his stuff. But he takes a sidecar in this movie, both to Lawrence and to several subplots. After reflection, I see that that tack only enhanced his performance. The crowd I was with seemed pleased by the movie, even though it's not a full dose of Eddie.

Life especially reminded me of director Demme's The Ref (1994), a movie about criminals and folks who were stuck in a rut and the extreme situation that set them free. Demme is a smart director, and it's good to know that he is in charge of mainstream product like this. All in all Life is very entertaining. but if you're missing more Eddie, be sure to stick around for the credits, which include several funny outtakes of Murphy clowning around and being Murphy.

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