Rick Baker’s seamless makeup was integral to the devilishly sly performance Eddie Murphy gave in The Nutty Professor. In Life, though, you can see the seams. Late in the film, the old-age latex facade that Baker has designed gives Murphy and his costar, Martin Lawrence, the appearance of wrinkled septuagenarians, yet the flesh itself doesn’t look quite real. They might be senior citizens who’ve been slathered with doughnut glaze. The irony is that it’s only when they’re playing these withered codgers that the two actors become fully themselves.
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.
Oddly enough, it’s one of the livelier sequences that first reveals that Demme doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. Ray, lying in his bunk, entertains his fellow prisoners with his dream of opening a swank nightclub — Ray’s Boom Boom Room. Magically, it unfolds before us, with each of the prisoners popping up in a funny-cute role. Look, there’s the hulking Goldmouth (Michael “Bear” Taliferro) as a bouncer! The swishy Biscuit (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) as a sultry chan-teuse! The strange thing is, Demme, at this point, has barely even introduced these characters, and so the joke of seeing them in this deco Cotton Club reverie hardly pays off.
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. C