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.
Murphy and Lawrence’s 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.