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'Life' Is Beautiful

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 1999

  Movie Critic

Eddie Murphy, right, and Martin Lawrence are in it for the long haul in "Life." (Universal)

Ted Demme
Martin Lawrence;
Eddie Murphy;
Lisa Nicole Carson;
Nick Cassavetes;
Noah Emmerich;
Poppy Montgomery;
Clarence Williams;
Bokeem Woodbine;
Obba Babatunde
Running Time:
1 hour, 49 minutes
Contains fisticuff violence, nudity and obscenity
When you saw ads for "Life," a comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, you were expecting a bad-boy raunchfest? You wanted some serious back and forthing between these two of the unprintable variety?

Well, that's only the half of it. Oh, "Life" gets down and dirty, all right. You can't expect Messrs. Murphy and Lawrence to let a project go by without a few nasty licks.

But this movie is much more than a dirty dukeout between two of Richard Pryor's most prominent disciples.

Instead of letting the exuberant headliners take a half-witted story line and overrun it with improvisational flair, director Ted Demme channels their performances into the flow of the story.

And a good story it is. "Life," written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, is a surprisingly well-textured, if sentimental narrative that starts in Harlem in the 1930s, runs through the war years and civil rights, then continues all the way to Afros and bell-bottoms and – I'll stop there in the interest of preserving surprise.

Let's just say the movie, which has some passing similarities with "The Shawshank Redemption," spans two lifetime sentences. (Quick, someone stop me before I use the word "Bildungsroman" in the same review as "Martin Lawrence.") The prisoners are petty hustler Ray Gibson (Murphy) and aspiring bank teller Claude Banks (Lawrence), who start off as free men in Harlem, but who find themselves unceremoniously thrown together one fateful night when they can't pay their bar bills.

Forced to do a moonshine run in Mississippi to make up the difference, they run into some serious trouble, southern style.

Caught near the body of a dead man, they get a bum rap for his murder by the redneck sheriff who did the deed. The judge issues them brand new numbers and a new, rural address. Ray is No. 4316 and Claude is No. 4317, and their home is a Mississippi state prison, full of bullies and sissies, one ornery black guard called Hoppin' Bob (Brent Jennings) and an even meaner redneck prison boss (Nick Cassavetes).

With nothing but life before them, our two performers comically go to town.

The first initiation involves getting to know their new cellmates, including a very big guy called Goldmouth (Michael "Bear" Taliferro), who demands to eat Claude's cornbread. Ray decides this is the time to talk tough and show everyone what he's made of. For this display, Ray gets his first prison whupping, courtesy of Goldmouth.

After that, the atmosphere of the movie softens – almost to a Roberto Benigni level, as our newest inmates adjust to the new life. Goldmouth is one of several ultimately engaging characters, including a bandanna-topped prison queen called Biscuit (Miguel A. Nun~ez Jr.); a mute baseball sensation called Can't Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine); and a strange, bulgy-eyed guy called Jangle Leg (the great Bernie Mac).

"Why they call him Jangle Leg?" Claude wonders.

"You going to find out before me," says a wiser Ray.

Although Murphy gets the comical run of the yard, Lawrence gets his time too. It starts before Claude and Ray go to prison, when they stumble into a southern roadhouse, Claude asks for some coffee and pie. "These are whites-only pies," says the nasty, grim-faced woman clutching a rifle behind the counter.

"Well, do you have any Negro pies?" asks Claude, exasperated.

If both performers are funny as young men, they get even better with age. As they get longer in the tooth (and more like Danny Glover each passing year), Murphy and Lawrence are a double hoot, insulting each other with comments about senility and bladder control.

But director Demme (who also made the enjoyable ensemble comedy, "Beautiful Girls") and the writers give us something deeper than mere slapstick or verbal tennis.

One night, for instance, Ray leads the inmates in a group-shared fantasy, in which they all go to Ray's Boom Boom Room in New York, dressed to the nines and having a whale of a time.

That is, until a cop, looking suspiciously like prison guard Hoppin' Bob, busts them out of there. The fantasy is ripped open. The real Hoppin' Bob has bust into the bunkhouse to tell everyone to shut up. The men's fancies are rudely interrupted. But we have been treated to something we normally would never get in a prison comedy like this: a little delicacy with the humor.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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