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Lifeless

A confused prison comedy locks up Eddie Murphy's talent

Imagine, if you will, one of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's classic road movies that never leaves the terminal, and you have pretty much described Life, the strikingly uneventful new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It's their Road to Nowhere.

Life, which was directed by Ted Demme from a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, begins in the present as a tall tale told by an old convict named Willie (Obba Babatunde), who reminisces over the graves of two old friends, Rayford Gibson (Eddie Murphy) and Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence). Then the film flashes back to those friends in Harlem some 65 years ago: Ray is a fast-talking hustler with slippery fingers. He meets Claude when he relieves him of his wallet in the men's room of Club Spanky, a swank speakeasy owned by a notorious gangster of the same name. Because of this petty crime, these transgressors must appear before Spanky (Rick James) himself, and we find out that they owe Spanky money. Ray hurriedly suggests the gangster join him in a moonshine venture: Spanky will spare their lives if they bring back a truckload of the booze from down south. While the two men are in Mississippi, they get wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to life terms, for the murder of a local gambler.

Even at this early stage, the film already feels stagnant and pointless. Life may be the film's title, but it's also what the picture lacks. Murphy has called the film "a big prison-escape film, but with comedy." However, with the exception of one short breakout -- during which nothing particularly funny or dramatic occurs -- the characters remain in prison for the rest of the film. There are some bright spots. But by the time we figure out that Ray and Claude are going to remain in prison, interacting with the same dull roster of characters, the film loses what little dramatic tension it had managed to accumulate.

Watching The Nutty Professor or Doctor Dolittle, you can't help but be impressed by Murphy's range and diversity as an actor. In Life, much of that raw ability is wasted. Demme and the screenwriters are unable to come up with much of a character for Murphy or much interaction between the two comedians.

Murphy's Ray is more clearly drawn. (He gets the better part of the jokes, too.) Before Ray was arrested, he had dreams of someday opening up a club called Ray's Boom Boom Room, a nightspot that in terms of riches and class would put the Cotton Club to shame. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Ray fantasizes out loud about the club, giving each of his fellow inmates a job to fill. All Claude wants is to put this lousy episode behind him and go back to work as a bank teller. Unfortunately, these tiny bits of characterization are about all the filmmakers have given the actors to work with, so the heroes come across as vague and underdeveloped.

Their fellow inmates are mere one-note wonders. One young prisoner -- nicknamed Can't Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine) because he is a mute -- turns out to be a naturally gifted baseball player. Claude conjures up a plan to make himself so instrumental to the young man's future that when the talented athlete leaves prison to become a professional ballplayer Claude will have to be released along with him.

When this last hope is finally dashed, Claude proclaims to Ray that their friendship is finished and withdraws into himself. By the time they begin talking again they are old men, and, with the help of makeup wizard Rick Baker, they certainly look old. Unfortunately, they also look as if they have rubber Halloween masks glued to their faces. Instead of enhancing the actors' expressive ranges, the makeup reduces them.

What's most baffling about Life is how someone with Murphy's obvious gifts can produce pictures such as The Nutty Professor and Doctor Dolittle but then falter with duds such as Metro or this new mediocrity. There are indications scattered throughout Life that Murphy wanted the film to be more than just another shallow laughfest. As the director of Miami Blues, Beautiful Girls and Rounders, Demme has experience with more realistic movie comedies than the kind Murphy is known for. At the same time, though, the movie depends too often on dumb gags far below the actor's ability. So the film doesn't seem to know what sort of comedy it wants to be. In the end, it comes across as more confused than funny. The name is a bit unfortunate as well. No film entitled Life should remind us how much of ours it is wasting.

Life.
Rated R.
Directed by Ted Demme. With Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde and Bokeem Woodbine.

 
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