With Murphy, `Life' is charmed

Review: Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence are framed and serving life sentences in this lively and imaginative prison comedy.

April 16, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Eddie Murphy is up to speed -- literally -- in "Life," a comedy with dead-serious underpinnings. Rattling off verbal riffs and loop-de-loops at 100 rpm, Murphy presents an engaging, appealing trickster, made of the same cunning, slightly corrupt charm that animates the best cartoon heroes.

If Eddie Murphy hadn't been born, surely Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc would have invented him.

Martin Lawrence co-stars in "Life," but it is Murphy who is given full room to stretch in a movie that takes an unlikely subject -- two black men serving life sentences on a Mississippi prison farm after being framed for a murder -- and infuses it with generous amounts of comedy and even a little pathos.

Although the setup is hopelessly contrived, director Ted Demme executes it with surprising artistry, resulting in a film that, while essentially being a disposable vehicle for two comic superstars, has more heart and soul than usual.

Murphy and Lawrence play Rayford Gibson and Claude Banks, two young men on the make in Harlem in 1932, albeit on different routes. Gibson is a pickpocket and a dandy, looking to open his own club, Ray's Boom-Boom Room. Banks is about to begin a job as a bank teller and is engaged to a sweet, wholesome girl.

When Ray picks Claude's pocket in the men's room, the relatively innocuous crime circuitously leads to the two men driving to Mississippi to pick up bootleg liquor for club-owner Spanky (played by an unrecognizable Rick James). There, a poker game gone awry and Jim Crow racism lead to Ray and Claude being framed for the murder of a card sharp (Clarence Williams III).

The rest of "Life" takes place on a Mississippi prison farm, where Ray and Claude are to serve life sentences, and where the usual gang of characters in gray stripes becomes their improvised family. Here, "Life" succumbs to type: There's the huge tough guy with a heart of gold; the inmate who wears a kerchief and flirts demurely with Claude; the taciturn con who's been in since he was 13; and the nerd who fiddles with a crystal radio set. There's even a cook named Cookie.

These cliches are comforting rather than tiresome in "Life," which, after all, is meant to be a backdrop for the talents of Murphy and Lawrence. And although fans of Lawrence may find him entertaining, he is mostly limited here to playing straight man to Murphy's garrulous schemer. Lawrence's funniest bit takes place in a diner, where the two men order pie and coffee despite a "No Coloreds Allowed" sign. "These are whites-only pies," the imposing waitress tells them. "You got any Negro pies?" Lawrence retorts.

Demme deserves credit for sustaining an underlying sense of history, even when "Life" is at its silliest. Although the prison farm is idealized as a place of baseball games, horseshoes, conjugal visits and comical esprit de corps, the politics of the situation are gracefully evoked in scenes like the diner, or when the warden's young (white) daughter blithely sentences one of the inmates, all of whom are black, to "the hole." In one of the film's funniest sequences, she makes up for her past several years later.

Edited with alacrity and imagination by Demme and full of colorful nightclub scenes (one of them a terrific dream sequence) and an effective montage to show the social upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, "Life" is helped enormously by Wyclef Jean's blues-inflected score and a soundtrack of cuts by Jimmie Rodgers and Bukka White.

Makeup artist Rick Baker has done an extraordinary job with Murphy and Lawrence's makeup, especially Murphy's patchy whiskers and sagging skin. (With his full white beard, Lawrence resembles a slightly grizzled version of Dick Gregory.)

As old men, the two are supposed to have a chemistry similar to that of Walter Matthau and George Burns in "The Sunshine Boys." But even in his dotage, Murphy outstrips his partner, stealing scene after scene with mischief-making charm.

`Life'

Starring Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence

Directed by Ted Demme

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated R (strong language and a shooting)

Running time: 112 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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