Imagine, if you will, one of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's classic road movies that never leaves the terminal, and you get a pretty good description of Life, the strikingly uneventful new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It's their Road to Nowhere.
Life, which was directed by Ted Demme from a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, begins in the present as a tall tale told by an old convict named Willie (Obba Babatunde), who reminisces over the graves of two old friends--Rayford Gibson (Eddie Murphy) and Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence). Then the film flashes back to said friends in Harlem some 65 years ago: Ray is a fast-talking hustler with slippery fingers who meets Claude when he relieves him of his wallet in the men's room of Club Spanky, a swank speakeasy owned by a notorious gangster of the same name. Predictably, the result of this petty crime is that these transgressors must appear before Spanky (Rick James) himself, and we find out that both men have already made the gangster's acquaintance. Since neither Ray nor Claude is able to pay back the money they owe, Spanky threatens to take it out of their hides when Ray hurriedly suggests the gangster join him in a little business venture. Ray, it seems, has access to the best moonshine in the state of Mississippi. If Spanky will spare the lives of Claude and Ray, they will go down South and bring back a truckload of the stuff.
To their amazement, Spanky jumps at the deal, setting up the second act of what is already a long prelude to the film's real story. While the two men are in Mississippi, they are wrongfully prosecuted--and convicted--for the bloody murder of a local gambler. The sentence? Life. As the men arrive at the Mississippi State Prison, the real story begins, but even at this early point, the film already feels stagnant and pointless. Life may be the film's title, but it's also what the picture lacks. Murphy has called it "a big prison-escape film but with comedy." However, with the exception of one short breakout--during which nothing particularly funny or dramatic occurs--the characters remain in prison for the film's duration. There are, at least, some bright spots. In what is perhaps the funniest scene, Murphy loudly proclaims what will happen should anyone try to snatch his cornbread. By the time we figure out that Ray and Claude are going to remain in prison, interacting with the same dull roster of characters, the film loses whatever little dramatic tension it had managed to accumulate.
Watching The Nutty Professor or Doctor Doolittle, you can't help but be impressed by Murphy's range and diversity as an actor. In Life, though, much of that raw ability is wasted. Not only are Demme and the screenwriters unable to come up with much of a character for Murphy to play, but they can't even seem to find ways for the two comedians to interact with each other. Of the two characters, Murphy's Ray is more clearly drawn. (He gets the better part of the jokes too.) Before Ray was arrested, he had dreams of someday opening up a club called Ray's Boom Boom Room--a nightspot that in terms of riches and class would put the Cotton Club to shame. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Ray fantasizes out loud about the club, giving each of his fellow inmates a job to fill. Claude's dreams are the most prosaic: All he wants to do is put this lousy episode behind him and go back to work at his job as a bank teller. Unfortunately, these tiny bits of characterization are about all the filmmakers have given the actors to work with, so naturally the heroes come across as vague and underdeveloped.
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By comparison, their fellow inmates are mere one-note wonders. A late arrival to the prison is a young mute who, because of his speech impediment, is given the nickname Can't Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine). In addition to not being able to speak, Can't Get Right is a naturally gifted baseball player who's able almost literally to knock the cover off a baseball. From the moment Claude first sees this phenomenal talent, he conjures up a plan to make himself so instrumental to the young man's future that when he leaves prison to become a professional ballplayer, Claude will have to be released with him.
When this last hope is finally dashed, Claude proclaims to Ray that their friendship is finished and withdraws into himself. By the time they begin talking again they are old men, and with the help of makeup wizard Rick Baker, they certainly look old. Unfortunately, they also look as if they have rubber Halloween masks glued to their faces. Instead of enhancing the actors' expressiveness, the makeup reduces it.
What's most baffling about Life is how someone with Murphy's obvious gifts can produce pictures like The Nutty Professor and Doctor Doolittle but then falter and come out with duds like Metro or this new mediocrity. There are indications scattered throughout Life that Murphy wanted the film to be more than just another shallow laughfest. As the director of The Ref and co-producer on Rounders, Demme has experience with a more realistic brand of movie comedy than the kind Murphy is known for. At the same time, though, the movie depends all too often on dumb gags far below the actor's ability. As a result, the film doesn't seem to know what sort of comedy it wants to be--it comes across as more confused than funny. In the long run, the title is a bit unfortunate as well. No film titled Life should remind us so often how much of ours it is wasting.
Directed by Ted Demme, from a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Starring Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde and Bokeem Woodbine. Opens Friday.