Ah, the mass audience does love its comforting prison stories. The guards may be tough, the conditions may be harsh, but you get to put roots down in one spot for an extended period, and you make some great friends. Even such an accomplished prison film as The Shawshank Redemption fell for this sentimental view of life behind bars (I much prefer the balls-to-the-walls spit and snarl of HBO’s Oz), and now there is Life, which tries to turn the subject into a comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. It’s basically Shawshank meets Stir Crazy, and it’s pretty much a crock — unfunny when it’s meant to be funny, unmoving when it’s at its most synthetically poignant.
Murphy and Lawrence are two mismatched, inexperienced bootleggers — Murphy a con man, Lawrence a prim and proper bank teller — who are framed for murder and sentenced to life in a loosely structured Mississippi work prison. There are no fences; instead, the cons are told that if they cross a certain line, they will simply be shot. With one maudlin exception, no one is shot in this way, and nobody really undergoes any suffering that we can see; it’s more like a juvenile-delinquent boot camp than like a real prison. The rigors of hard labor certainly don’t seem to touch Eddie or Martin. Their characters never change; at most, they become a little more frustrated and irritable.
There are about 50 interesting subtexts in Life that the director, Ted Demme, and screenwriters, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (they also wrote Destiny Turns on the Radio), never move themselves to explore or acknowledge. In this prison, for instance, the racism seems a lot less vicious than it is on the outside; there is a nasty white guard, but he has an even nastier black right-hand man, who has violent contempt for the black convicts. I would’ve liked to know why, and I would’ve liked to discover why the white guard seems to soften towards Eddie and Martin over the years (the film spans about 60). Most of the convicts — a hulking bruiser, a delicate gay con, a mischievous-looking nerd in specs who never gets to do anything — are similarly underwritten, but then so are the leads.
Murphy and Lawrence never quite move beyond shtick in this movie; even when tragedy strikes, all they can do is put on their serious faces. The progressive old-age make-up — by Rick Baker, who did much better (and deservedly Oscar-winning) work with Murphy in The Nutty Professor — underscores the artificiality of the performances. Weighed down with pounds of fake-looking wrinkly latex, Murphy and Lawrence do simplistic codger voices, but they don’t move like actual septuagenarians — particularly when Lawrence sprints across a yard like a man in his twenties. Their performances have no wildness, no invention; it’s their usual routines spread out across 60 years, or 104 minutes that feel like 60 years.
Life was directed by Ted Demme, the nephew of Jonathan (The Silence of the Lambs) and a fine filmmaker in his own right — he made The Ref, Beautiful Girls, and last year’s overlooked gem Monument Ave, which had the anger and despair that Life could have used as a springboard for some truly daring humor. Demme is just going through the motions here; his main theme, it’s clear by now, is guys sitting around bitching about life, but Life has too much bitching and not enough life.
I certainly wouldn’t hold up Stir Crazy as a comedy masterpiece, but there are scenes in it I remember after 18 years — Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s famous “We bad” entrance; Wilder spending a stretch in the hole, then being disappointed upon getting let out (“I was just beginning to find myself”); a bald, fearsome, gargantuan convict starting to sing in a soft, high, lovely voice. Three scenes aren’t much, but that’s more than I’ll remember from Life 18 days from now, let alone 18 years.