Although Ted Demme's LIFE makes you wait until the ending credits, it
does eventually deliver on its promising casting. As shown in the
outtakes, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence can be quite funny together
as they flub their lines and generally ham it up. They also show
evidence of good chemistry together, something that the body of the
movie has trouble demonstrating.
How's this for a questionable concept for a movie? A slice of life
story about two prisoners in "for the long ride" -- life in prison. The
uneventful script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone contains little in
the way of comedy or drama. And rather than pumping up this modest
story, the director restrains his actors. The result is that the
audience has to wait until the end for Murphy and Lawrence to show off
their talent. Most of the movie has respectable actors delivering
reverential performances in a film that lacks much-needed oomph.
Thanks to set designer Dan Bishop (LONE STAR), the picture does provide
some impressive atmospherics. (The story takes place from 1932 until
about 40 years later) The Southern, "coloreds only" prison is a ragtag
collection of decaying buildings. Not seeing the need for barbed wire,
the prison has a "gun line" instead. Step outside of it, and they bury
you that afternoon.
The prison is not quite as bad a place as it sounds. The men get
conjugal visits, and, for a nominal fee, temporary marriages can be
instantly authorized. And for all of the white overseer's bluster, he's
frequently more friend than foe.
Still, there's no way out for prisoners #4316 (Murphy) and #4317
(Lawrence), not that they don't try often enough. Their failed
attempts, which are never with enough humor, are the story's on-going
joke. About the only prisoner who looks like he might get himself an
exit visa is a speechless guy named Can't Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine).
He may be awarded an athletic scholarship of sorts since the one thing
he can get right is swatting a baseball over the far distant trees.
The movie does contain some nice sections. Using 4 decades of archival
footage of news events of the era, Demme sets the context of the times.
The story's most poignant scene comes when a convincingly aged Lawrence
looks for the first time in 30 years at a town full of people. Like Rip
Van Winkle, his body freezes and his eyes glaze over as he looks at the
changes in people's clothing and hairstyles.
Ending first with a nicely ambiguous twist, the movie then feels
compelled to spell everything out for us. After unleashing our
imaginations, why does the film have to treat us like little kids who
have to know all the answers? Do they think we would demand our money
back if the film left some doubt as to the story's precise resolution?
LIFE runs too long at 1:48. It is rated R for some profanity, violence
and mature themes and would be fine for teenagers.
Copyright © 1999 Steve Rhodes