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