This is a movie often at odds with itself-standup comedy and lost lives.
"Life" is more than it seems. Billed as an Eddie Murphy comedy, this movie deles unexpectedly and deeply into a minefield of human emotion. The story travels through time-1932 to the present-skimming just the surface of the questions it touches, suggesting that we notice, but not be disturbed by, what we see. With a refreshing lack of self-importance, the filmmakers, without moralizing, pepper their tale with moments of bigotry, injustice, and the poignancy of old age. But when all this is set to the tune of a verbal dance between Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, the effect is bewildering. We find ourselves laughing, then angry, then moved.
Ray Gibson (Eddie Murphy) and Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence) bicker their way through 55 years of a life sentence on a Mississippi prison farm. Life on the farm, a curious place, is an odd combination of bigotry and trust. Farm boss Sgt. Dillard (Nick Cassavetes) treats the prisoners with that special blend of entitled superiority and permissiveness exhibited by old Southerners fond of talking about how close they were to their maids. Writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone pass no contemporary judgements on the pre-1954 South. They simply tell us that "this is the way it was."
The bulk of the film is the running argument between Ray and Claude as they adjust to life in prison and their new friends. Friendships grow slowly while the two men dream of their eventual return to New York. They know their dreams are just dreams, and their few attempts to break out are characteristically both inspired and impractical. They live their lives in the wisecracking acceptance that defines the culture of the prison.
After the director fast-forwards with film clips of Martin Luther King, Kennedy, and hints of Brown vs. the Board of Education, we reconnect with the convicts in their old age. Here they are, now trusted workers at the home of the farm superintendent (a very good Ned Beatty), same place, same guys, 55 years later. On the day he is sent to town on an errand, Claude stares at his reflection in the window of a car and then looks around at the modern world he has never seen. The scene is wordless, all the more effective for its silence.
The last third of the film is touching and funny, provocative even, and we are left to wonder exactly what the producers, including point man Murphy, had in mind. Expecting another motor-mouth comedy, we get instead a blisteringly funny, yet gently compassionate, verbal duet set against a chorus of fine performances by the supporting cast.
Perhaps their message to us is all the stronger for being wrapped in words, not violence. This is a movie often at odds with itself-standup comedy and lost lives. A successful comedy about quiet acceptance of racial injustice? Credit Mr. Murphy and Mr. Lawrence with pulling off the impossible.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 490
Studio : Universal
Rating : R
Running time : 1h48m
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