Wednesday, April 21, 1999

Life

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 1999 at 12:00 AM

While wrapping up production on The Nutty Professor, Eddie Murphy had a thought: What if two guys who barely know each other go to prison for life and – 60 years later – manage to escape? "A big prison escape film – but with comedy," says Murphy, proud of the intriguing concept but, apparently, unaware of its problematic nature.

Ray (Murphy) and Claude (Martin Lawrence), mighty fine – broke – gambling boys on a bootlegging run, are convicted of a crime they didn’t commit and sentenced to life imprisonment at a Mississippi State Prison. Light as a feather, fluffy and good-humored, the film starts in the ’30s and moves into the present, careful to avoid any kind of character development. Nothing seems to interfere with Ray and Claude’s constant bickering: not the years spent in prison, not the changes in the outside world. The ’30s go by, and then the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, yet Ray and Claude – the grumpy old men of Mississippi State – show no anger and no sadness, just the occasional regret.

The prison itself looks more like a camp than a place of punishment: no bars, no fences, just a few guns and sundry words of caution. Under the careful supervision of Sgt. Dillard (Nick Cassavetes), the inmates lead dull but prosperous lives. Sure, there are a few Shawshank Redemption moments – a skirmish over corn bread, lots of bad news from home, a moment of gay compulsion – but none are to be taken seriously. As it turns out, dumb lug Goldmouth (Michael Taliferro), the corn bread lover, is a sweet teddy bear, and the rest of the guys are nice – really nice, Morgan Freeman nice – once you get to know them.

And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you take Life for what it is, a fantasy, "la vie en rose" inside a Mississippi prison where people are free to dream of getting out and being rich and doing something with their already spent lives.

E-mail comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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