The pairing seems ideal. Putting Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence together sounds like a perfect comedy teaming. Toss in a high-concept gimmick and plenty of old age makeup and you get Life, a bland movie that may not be a prison term, but falls well short of its potential.
When the film opens, in 1930’s New York, the pair haven’t met and would seem the unlikeliest of friends. Ray Gibson (Eddie Murphy) is a thief and con-artist with dreams of one day owning a nightclub: Ray’s Boom Boom Room. Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence) is a debt-ridden accountant who has landed a new job and a beautiful girlfriend. Things are looking up, until Claude and Ray both run afoul of local gangster, Spanky (Rick James).
The pair are given one chance to redeem themselves: they are to make a quick trip down to Mississippi to collect some bootleg moonshine. But, things don’t go as planned down South…and Ray and Claude somehow find themselves sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.
Luckily, the two find themselves assigned to one of the comfiest hard labor camps in Mississippi (or at least it seems that way onscreen). The cell-free camp includes the friendliest bunch of murderers you’re likely to see, and plenty of rest and relaxation time (most of which is spent playing baseball). Anyone who tries to leave gets shot (except Ray and Claude on their multiple escape attempts, of course), but the prison is so cozy, why would anyone dream of leaving? If you get the idea that Life offers a simplified view of incarceration, you would be correct.
The other inmates at the prison (including Obba Babatunde, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr, and Bokeem Woodbine) are meant to be colorful and interesting, but not enough time is spent with any of them. We never learn their stories, and they all end up as mere generic convicts.
The entire film seems to be structured around one idea: Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence grow old together in prison. Pile on the latex aging makeup, and who cares about the lead-up material? The problem is, since from the film’s opening we know the two spend their entire lives imprisoned, there’s no real point to any of the intervening scenes. They’ll never escape…they’ll never die…so why not just skip to the old age scenes and get on with it?
When Martin and Lawrence are on a roll, they come up with some pretty funny stuff. Unfortunately, most of the film is spent rehashing tired old prison jokes, and the pair are rarely able to cut loose.
There’s enough material here for about half a movie, and Life simply repititiously stretches it out to the full term. As a video, this film may fit the crime, but it isn’t worth a sentence at your local theater.