LIFE, Ted Demme's wonderful new film, falls prey to the predator
called marketing. Anyone who has seen the film's trailer and/or poster
will simply dismiss the film as another dumb Eddie Murphy or Martin
Lawrence vehicle, either filled with offensive jokes or strictly for
the kids. Such things happen when an actors become typecast, as Eddie
Murphy and Martin Lawrence have, but their new film, LIFE, is as
expansive as it's title indicates.
Ray and Claude(Murphy and Lawrence, respectively), two practical
strangers living in Harlem, meet when they are forced to retrieve many
cases of beer for the local kingpin, Spanky, because of debts they
each owe. As they travel down to Mississippi, they lose all of their
money gambling to a hotshot whom they later find dead right in front
of their eyes. The man was beaten to death by a cop, but the hicks who
find the two black men suspect him immediately, and before they know
it they are sentenced to prison for life; hence the title.
The Mississippi State Prison of LIFE is a fairly lenient one. The
prison is actually a large farm with no gates, but a boundary called
the "gun line". Ray and Claude form an unlikely partnership, even
though Claude still blames Ray for getting them into the prison. Among
the colleagues they meet, the most memorable ones(I forget his name,
but it's long) is a silent man(Bokeem Woodbine) who, because of his
baseball ablility, is able to escape the prison for the Negro Leagues,
and a homosexual inmate who is granted a pardon but decides to commit
suicide instead of letting his parents see what's happened to him
while in jail.
As Ray and Claude get older, the film begins to grow on the viewer
more and more. After a few failed escape attempts during their
lifetime, the two men are beginning to ponder their own existence and
wonder why they're wasting their time. But they never lose hope.
These qualities of the film, among others, compare favorably with the
Oscar winning Italian film LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL,
LIFE's characters try to provide humor and dreams to get them through
their suffering. Ray sparks the interest of his cellmates when they
all begin to dream about their place in Ray's Boom Boom Room, a
nightclub in which they all play their own little part. Ray and Claude
help prove the universal theory that hope and faith can get anyone
through the worst of times.
Director Ted Demme(BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, MONUMENT AVE.), nephew of director
Jonathan Demme(SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PHILADELPHIA) lets his actors
shine in roles that flaunt their dramatic and comedic acting
abilities. The film never really addresses subjects like racism
head-on, but the film does, in a much deeper way, help unite a feeling
of peace, instead of violence. The film then ends on a happy note,
before subjecting the viewer to the unneccesary outtakes. But LIFE is
still one of the year's most unexpected surprises. The film pulls no
punches in getting it's way to your heart, and it proves that life,
though not always beautiful, is always worth living.
Copyright © 1999 Akiva Gottlieb