Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Life Movie Review: Hard Time in the Jim Crow South

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 23 April 1999. I have made some minor editorial adjustments, although nothing that affects the content of the review.

Two black men, wrongfully accused of murder in Mississippi in the 1920’s, spend sixty-five years in prison. Sounds like the workings of a film about racial injustice? Perhaps the hardships of the prison farms in the deep south? Not quite. Instead what we have is a comedy-drama about a mismatched pair of New York City boys forming an unlikely friendship during a life prison sentence.

Life is directed by Ted Demme and stars Eddie Murphy as Ray and Martin Lawrence as Claude – the two men whose luck runs out about twenty-five minutes into the film. As it happens Ray and Claude find themselves driving to Mississippi to haul a truckload of booze back to the big city. In a late night celebration with their fresh wad of cash, Ray loses everything he has (including a Sterling silver pocket watch that was a gift from his father) to a cheating gambler (Clarence Williams III). As their luck would have it, the gambler’s dead body falls in their laps outside and as Ray is looking for his watch, he gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Ray clearly has a motive for this murder, but we know that neither he nor Claude had anything to do with it (it was actually the young sheriff). But the evidence is never brought to light, the trial is never seen. All that matters is that they are two black men standing over a dead body and they were caught by four shotgun-wielding good ol’ boys. That, and the fact that the sheriff is glad to have a couple of easy scapegoats. Did they get a fair trial? Probably not, but the film is anxious to get into the prison where the real meat of the story begins.

The movie has a script that doesn't quite know what it wants to be and a director without the skill to bring it into focus.  With its fluctuations of ups and downs between stock comedy bits and poignancy, Life never settles on a purpose. Its dramatic moments are too many and too strong for the film to be a comedy, but at the same time it's not nearly ambitious enough to take on the issues that it hints at.

This could have been a film that either explored or shed a humorous light on race relations in the Deep South. It could almost have been an allegory for US slavery with the domineering white prison sergeant, played by Nick Cassavetes, acting like a plantation overseer.
The supporting cast combines to form a fun, lovable group of characters. Among them are the actors Bokeem Woodbine, Bernie Mac, and Anthony Anderson. Unfortunately, screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone didn't take the time to develop them. They appear on screen too briefly and before we're given a sense of who these guys are, they disappear one by one during a montage sequence that spans 28 years.

Murphy and Lawrence give respectable performances, especially late in the film when, enhanced by Rick Baker's special makeup effects, they give solid impressions of bickering old men. Their arguing is fueled by inane subjects and the disdain they pretend to have for each other after so many years in prison together. The kicker is that they have really become good friends, dependent on one another for survival.

There is a contrived moment when the murderous sheriff shows up some forty years later and Ray and Claude immediately recognize him. They get their vengeance, but it turns out to be all for naught.

By the end of the film, you'll be thankful that you didn't have to labor through the film as long as Ray and Claude had to labor through prison, although you may feel like you did.

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