An unexpected tale covering 55 years in the lives of two bickering convicts bonded by a miscarriage of justice and inextinguishable hope, “Life” careens from decade to decade, and from relative dramatic realism to frequent hilarity, in often-winning fashion. When in doubt, Ted Demme’s tonally unusual film generally opts for impudent and confrontational humor — not a bad idea when your stars are Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Largely missing, however, are the pain and melancholy rightly expected from a study of unfairly wasted lives; that the plantation-like Mississippi State Prison comes off rather like a coercive country club, complete with girls, booze and sports, also softens the story’s edge. But the toplined duo, who last teamed in “Boomerang” (1992), and pic’s comic kick should insure a solid commercial life.
Idea for the film was Murphy’s own, and the recruited screenwriting team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone have come up with something considerably better than their debut, the dismal “Destiny Turns on the Radio.” Though lively, packed with colorful characters and spiked with outbursts of outrageous banter, script has a flat, episodic quality that negates much momentum. And while bluntly presenting institutionalized racism as a fact of Southern life, it’s also mostly content with a surface treatment of sociopolitical as well as personal relationships. Result falls well short of a thoroughly dimensional portrait of the setting or characters, but is entertaining nonetheless.
Bookended by a contempo burial scene in which an old-timer (Obba Babatunde) relates the story of the two lifers to the young gravediggers at a prison cemetery, yarn jumps back to 1932 Harlem, where fast-talking hustler Ray Gibson (Murphy) picks the wrong guy, straightlaced but penniless aspiring bank teller Claude Banks (Lawrence), to pickpocket at a swank nightclub. To pay off a debt to a bootlegger (funkmeister Rick James, very dapper), the New Yorkers drive south to pick up a load of moonshine, but the lads lose all their cash thanks to their weaknesses for gambling (Ray) and women (Claude). When the venal local sheriff then nails them for the murder of a man he himself has killed, the two men are sentenced — a half-hour into the story — to life in prison.
In the Depression-era Mississippi depicted here, this means confinement, not behind bars, but on a camp-like compound that doesn’t even have fences, just guards who shoot to kill if a prisoner steps beyond the “gun line.” Unshackled convicts work on rural digging and construction projects, in effect doing the work of slaves and living rather like them as well. Their rifle-toting overseer (a glowering Nick Cassavetes, sporting a very shaky Deep South accent) may act tough, but within the grounds he tolerates a loose atmosphere that embraces conjugal visits, open homosexuality and quite a bit of horsing around by an idiosyncratic bunch of inmates.
Given that most of the guys identify themselves as convicted murderers (peer pressure prompts Ray to invent a killing spree background for Claude and himself), they prove to be a pretty relaxed, amiable bunch once the ice is broken. In Ray’s case, his initiation consists of being pummeled by the camp’s giant, Goldmouth (Michael “Bear” Taliferro), while Claude has to ward off the advances of the unpredictable Jangle Leg (Bernie Mac), who reps the gay contingent along with kerchief-headed Biscuit (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.).
Though a mischievous prankster and born con man, Ray tends to go with the flow and get along no matter what the circumstances, while Claude is a frequently ornery malcontent; their combative, “Odd Couple”-like friendship remains at the center of the story, which at heart expresses the view that two people don’t necessarily have to get along that well to spend their whole lives with one another. Ray’s explosive ranting and Claude’s disgruntled grousing provide for some very funny comic eruptions, exchanges in which they lay into each other with often vulgar and abusive fury.
The two men never give up on the idea that they’ll somehow get out one day, but their schemes along these lines remain modest and intermittent; an early nocturnal escape attempt is aborted quickly and, after WWII, their hopes of being pardoned along with a young baseball slugger (Bokeem Woodbine) whose talents they’ve nurtured at the camp prove illusory. Finally, in the 1970s, they’re transferred to work at the home of the camp’s broad-minded superintendent (Ned Beatty), enabling Claude, who’s engaged as valet and driver, to lord it over Ray, who’s merely the gardener. Pic then concocts some circumstances in order to serve up a feel-good ending.
Although the film is not exactly gritty, director Demme’s relatively realistic backgrounding lends the comic saga a more than ordinary texture, giving suggestions of the everyday world that Ray and Claude will never inhabit. Contributing nicely to this effort are Dan Bishop’s lived-in production design, Lucy Corrigan’s period-leaping costumes and Geoffrey Simpson’s lensing, which has a nicely bleached quality.
While turned on to strong comic effect, Murphy’s rude, live-wire personality stays channeled within the bounds of the film. Lawrence provides a fine foil, but his increasing anger doesn’t go deep enough, often seeming more like a pose than the infection at the core of his being. Rick Baker’s makeup, accompanied by some expert vocal variations, ages the two actors with total credibility over the course of half a century. Supporting players are extremely well cast and deliver with flying colors.