Seeing a slaphappy Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence mugging on the video box, you might think that their prison comedy Life is a real laugh riot — you know, like the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder romp Stir Crazy. Actually, it feels like The Shawshank Redemption played for gentle chuckles, more concerned with touching your heart than busting your gut.
Beginning in 1932 — when first-time bootleggers Ray Gibson (Murphy) and Claude Banks (Lawrence) get framed for murder and sentenced to life at a Mississippi prison farm — the film spans more than 65 years of incarcerated odd-couple bonding. But what starts out comically contentious grows increasingly rueful as smooth operator Ray gets worn down by decades of thwarted escapes, and straitlaced Claude, a law-abiding citizen until he met Ray, gradually resigns himself to an existence without pardon or parole. As Life goes on, you realize that neither will be stopping the show for any easy laughs.
For Murphy, especially, this seems a calculated bid to show that he can handle a role that’s more than a one-man show. But we already knew that there was more to Eddie Murphy than that fast-talking smart-ass shtick. That was evident in his earliest films, when the Saturday Night Live whiz kid was paired with established actors who could carry the load and let Murphy do his thing. Except that Murphy didn’t simply do his thing, he also created characters that gave him a viable context for his comic riffs. The man has always been able to act — it’s just that he seems to need the challenge of an equally talented costar to rise to the occasion.
That’s what he had in 48 HRS. (1982, Paramount, 97 mins., R), in which he played a thief sprung from the Big House to help Nick Nolte’s boozy cop catch killers on the lam. All but inventing the black-white buddy action comedy, they achieve a crackling balance of star power, with Murphy rat-a-tatting wisecracks and Nolte swatting everything back with big, bludgeoning blows. That their volatile chemistry always seems ready to explode only adds to the comic tension.
Murphy and Dan Aykroyd formed a different kind of dynamic duo in Trading Places (1983, Paramount, 118 mins., R), about a sidewalk con man and a stuffy commodities trader whose fates get reversed by two bored zillionaires (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche). As Aykroyd’s baffled blue blood pratfalls from country-club grace, Murphy makes a slick segue from hustler to Wall Street wizard. Eventually, Murphy becomes Aykroyd’s button-down snob, throwing a party for his old gang, only to wind up fretting over stains on the Persian rug, like some ghetto Felix Unger.
After Murphy’s bankability shot up with Beverly Hills Cop (1984) — in which onscreen partner Judge Reinhold was practically part of the audience — it got harder to pair him up with costars of equal clout. Even Richard Pryor, past his prime by 1989’s Harlem Nights, ended up in the star’s shadow. It took a pair of leading ladies — Robin Givens and Halle Berry — to bring out Murphy’s silky best in Boomerang (1992, Paramount, 118 mins., R). Murphy plays his first real romantic lead as a smug lothario who gets dogged by his new boss (Givens), who loves him and leaves him to her pretty employee (Berry). With the strut literally written out of Murphy’s character, the star is called upon to get all soft and cuddly. Warming to the task, Murphy actually surrenders some of the biggest laughs to his supporting cast of scene-stealers. Among them: Chris Rock, David Alan Grier, and an up-and-comer named Martin Lawrence.
Nowadays, of course, Murphy and Lawrence are on more equal ground, and their fussin’, feudin’ rapport is the very soul of Life, a film that sometimes overreaches for effect — like one inmate’s suicidal dash for freedom — but is most successful as the funny/sad tale of two old-timers who survive on the strength of their grudging friendship. It’s hardly Murphy’s best movie (although it may be Lawrence’s), but it might prove an important turning point: as the film in which Eddie Murphy started taking his costars — and himself — seriously again. Life: B- 48 HRS.: B+ Trading Places: B+ Boomerang: B