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LIFE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence
Director:  Ted Demme
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1, 16x9 Enhanced
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  October 19, 1999

Film ***

Life isn't beautiful (sorry, I couldn't resist), but what it is, is a surprising mix of delightful humor and genuine poignancy, the kind of blending that many films try for with disastrous results.  Here, it works, and works very nicely thanks to a terrific script and appealing, charismatic leads in Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.  In many ways, you could consider this movie the flip side of The Shawshank Redemption.

Let's face it…there's nothing funny about being sentenced to life in prison for a crime you didn't commit, and the movie doesn't try to pretend that there is.  The humor mainly comes from the concept of two men who get on each others' nerves quite frequently being thrown in together for a long period of time.  Ray (Murphy) is a glib, fast talking con man, with a notion to make a quick profit with some illegal Mississippi moonshine in the 1930's.  Claude (Lawrence) is the more conservative straight man, with some legal troubles of his own, who reluctantly agrees to accompany Ray on his mission rather than suffer his fate at the hands of an angry gangster.

Trouble is, they don't find early 20th century Mississippi to their liking, and vice versa.  In one of the movie's strengths, director Ted Demme touches on the atrocity of racism without climbing on a soapbox to do it.  We see it, we understand it, and the story moves on.

Ray and Claude end up accused of a murder they had nothing to do with.  “We'll tell the judge the truth,” Claude states.  “What could go wrong?”  Need I tell you?

Thus begins a 65 year misadventure for the two, as they face the prospect of life in prison, serving hard time, and where the movie really begins its most skillful balance of comedy and pathos.  All the expected humorous ingredients are in place…the way the two fellows agitate each other and other inmates, the initiation ritual (involving Ray defending his beloved cornbread to the death!), the trouble with the guards, attempted escapes, and so on.  But as the years pass, the men can't help but notice the little cemetery just outside the prison grounds…more and more, they are realizing and accepting the fact that their journey will most likely end there.

To show the passing years, Demme creates a moving montage set to a terrific song by Wyclef Jean, where we see friends and fellow inmates slowly and literally vanish from the screen as their life sentences come to an end.  It's sobering, but thanks to the balance, does not seem out of place in a comic film.

There are also terrific scenes that demonstrate the age old idea of the triumph of the human spirit.  The mind can never be locked up, in other words.  In one terrific sequence, Ray tells the others of his plans to own a swank night club in New York, and the fantasy literally comes to life, as one by one the inmates show up in his dream, decked out in tuxedos and celebrating their freedom joyously.  It's an uplifting scene you'll watch with a smile.  Another sequence involves Ray and Claude teaching a young mute prisoner to become a first class baseball player, which eventually earns him his ticket out of there.

A lot of credit should go to Murphy and Lawrence.  They are two of our most talented comedians, and in this film, they get to prove their acting mettle as well.  The chemistry between the two is winning and genuine, and their performances convey honestly the effects of a lifetime of hard labor.  Though the aging make-up is first rate, make-up is just make-up if you don't have actors who perform believably as old men, and both of them do the job terrifically.  They really appear tired and world weary toward the end of their lives, but never lose their comic edge toward one another, or the obvious delight they take in getting one another's goats.

Life is a terrific surprise of a movie…funny and touching, honest and pure, and with some messages that don't require or receive a lot of preaching to come across. 

Video ***

This is a mostly good anamorphic transfer from Universal.  The best scenes are the outdoor sequences, which are bathed in bright, hot sunlight…and fortunately, most of the movie takes place in them.  A few indoor scenes are hit and miss, with a little bit more harsh and less realistic color schemes, but they are relatively few.  Other indoor scenes, like the superintendent's house, are much better.  There is no noticeable grain or breakup anywhere on the disc. 

Audio **

The 5.1 soundtrack is serviceable, but nothing in the film really requires remarkable sound, other than a few good songs.

Features ***1/2

The disc contains a Spotlight on Location segment, featuring interviews with Murphy, Lawrence and Demme, a trailer, a commentary with Demme, outtakes, a soundtrack presentation, production notes, cast and crew info, and some animated menus with sound.

Summary:

Life is a winning film, with a great script and spirited performances from the two leads.  One can only hope this won't be the last teaming of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, two comic actors who work well together and obviously respect one another.  This film is a triumphant mix of just the right amounts of pathos to blend with the comedy, and a few good points that come through strongly without needing to be belabored.