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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Life

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence
Director: Ted Demme
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: April 1999
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Lisa Nicole Carson, Nick Cassavetes, Obba Babatunde

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
½ star out of 4

WARNING: This review contains obscenities and racist slang.

An early segment in the prison comedy "Life" shows Eddie Murphy's character entertaining his fellow inmates by spinning tales about the nightclub he dreams of opening. Huddled in their darkened barracks, the men sit enraptured as Murphy describes a grand, "Cotton Club" style setting and incorporates them into his fantasy. The camera moves from man to man, cutting from close-ups of the prisoners' faces to images of them, dressed to the nines, strutting their stuff in the neverland nightspot. It's a funny, sweet, wistful scene that shows the kind of movie "Life" could have been.

Instead, the bulk of the movie consists of scintillating dialogue along the lines of "Nigger, what the fuck are you talking about? Shit, motherfucker, you don't know a god-damned motherfucking thing, so fuck you, motherfucker!" "Oh yeah, well I never liked you either, so fuck you too, nigger!" Multiply the "shits," "niggers" and variants of the word "fuck" in the preceding sentences by about 200 and you'll have your very own copy of the script for this cinematic jewel. If you found this paragraph offensive; congratulations, you're a grown-up. If, however, you found the dialogue hilarious, then turn off "The Jerry Springer Show," find someone with a valid driver's license and haul it down to the picture show for some big fun, Cletus.

Told in flashbacks, "Life" covers 65 years in the lives of two men wrongfully convicted of murder, following them from 1932 Harlem to the Mississippi prison where they spend the bulk of their lives. Over the course of 108 sluggish minutes, we're treated to a few honest laughs, a few genuinely heartfelt moments, some terrific make-up, and loads of cussing and insult humor. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence are talented enough to make some of this tripe work, but for the most part, "Life" is formulaic, obvious and very slow. In fact, the outtakes shown over the closing credits are funnier than anything in the movie, particularly the final one, which contains a terrific ad-lib from Murphy.

To be fair, I should note that most of the audience at the sneak preview I attended howled through the entire movie and a few people even applauded. Perhaps they caught something that I missed. As someone who finds insult humor lazy and annoying, I may have simply missed the subtle nuances of the script. Or perhaps this same audience would also be entertained by staring at shiny rocks. You make the call.

Had "Life" bothered to flesh out its characters, the shrieking between Murphy and Lawrence might have been easier to take, but at the end of the film, little has changed. Both men remain rough sketches, older and a bit softer, but still terribly underdeveloped. Had the tragedy of lives wasted by impulsive behavior and a racist legal system been better explored, the humor might have packed some punch. Periodically, the filmmakers add segments that truly are touching. The reaction of a convict to the death of his lover is presented starkly and with dignity (one audience member responded to the scene by loudly saying "Fag"). The passage of time is depicted eloquently with images of various inmates slowing fading out of the picture.

Understand, I'm not complaining because the film isn't a drama. But with performers as gifted as Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, and a decades- spanning tale of the residents of an all-black prison in the deep South, "Life" had the potential to be both funny and substantial. As is, only one day after seeing the film, all I remember is a few good moments, some great outtakes, and a whole lot of obscenity-laced hollering.

Copyright 1999 Edward Johnson-Ott

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