”Life” is a lurchingly sentimental prison comedy that’s like a setup in search of a punchline. In 1932, Ray Gibson (Murphy), a Harlem hustler in silky duds, and Claude Banks (Lawrence), a novice bank teller with fussy parted hair, team up on a bootlegging run to Mississippi. The two don’t pretend to like each other. They’re from opposing schools of upward mobility: the outlaw and the assimilator. Both, however, owe money to the same mobster (nicely played by funk-rocker Rick James, who now resembles a malevolent catfish), and so they’re forced to be partners. What they don’t realize is that their partnership is doomed to last forever.
When Ray and Claude are wrongly accused, then convicted, of murder, they end up tossed into Mississippi State Prison, consigned to a lifetime of testy camaraderie. The film rambles through the decades, and then, after many defanged and listless scenes, it finally comes into focus as a kind of cantankerous vaudeville show, with Murphy and Lawrence paying homage to a grand, folkloric tradition of African-American comedy, that of the crusty, enfeebled elders who are too tired to hold in their secret nasty thoughts anymore. Watching these two take on the roles of furious curmudgeons, their voices cracking in outrage, should be a funny and moving spectacle. One thinks of Richard Pryor’s Mudbone, or that sidewalk chorus of soft-shoe Brooklyn jokers in ”Do the Right Thing”. Murphy and Lawrence are more than game, yet the imagination at work behind the camera barely rises to the level of, say, ”Grumpy Old Men”. Cloddish and pandering, this is a movie that tries to palm off the creakiest sketch-comedy shtick as drama. The script is doughnut glaze too.
It takes a while to get a fix on ”Life”, because the film can’t decide whether it’s a barracks melodrama like ”Stalag 17”, a sticky bonding fantasy like ”The Shawshank Redemption”, or a naughty Eddie-and-Martin gag-fest. We recognize, right off, that the prison, with its work-farm schedule and sadistic gun squad, is an extension of slavery — a way of keeping the black man down. Except that the director, Ted Demme (”Beautiful Girls”), shoots it all through an impersonal faux-nostalgia haze, especially when the characters begin to play baseball. The movie almost seems to be enshrining its world of social injustice.
It’s eerie to watch Eddie Murphy now, because, as the Buddy Love scenes in ”The Nutty Professor” made clear, when he’s trying to be the ”old” Eddie, the joyful motormouth with a rejoinder for every occasion, he’s like a replicant, offering up a prefab version of his former ebullience. (In a clunker like ”Dr. Dolittle”, he’s even worse; he seems to be made of wax.) Martin Lawrence, who has a limber and instinctive presence, plays Claude as a cautious nerve case who first comes on like the president of the Booker T. Washington Fan Club and then, as his life is taken away from him, grows gnarled with embitterment. Yet his desperation has no layers; he’s not a victim — he’s just annoyed. ”Life” desperately wants to let Murphy and Lawrence be actors, but it can’t imagine them as anything more than rowdy showmen. That’s a kind of prison as well.