I entered Life with trepidation. While I'm willing to laugh about anything and everything, it would take something extremely funny for me to consider being imprisoned for sixty-five years amusing. Fortunately Life overcame my reservations, thanks to some nice directorial and plotting moves.
Life is the second Eddie Murphy movie in this decade (besides The Nutty Professor) I've truly found to be interesting and humourous. The plot involves two New Yorkers Ray Gibson (Murphy) and Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence) who are unjustly arrested for killing a card sharp (Clarence Williams III) while bootlegging in the Mississippi. Their sentence is swiftly determined and executed and they head off to a Mississippi State for the rest of their lives. This is when the movie really picks up as we see Ray and Claude interact (or not) to escape from prison.
The reason Life works for me is because the entire time spent in prison seems like a paradise. In terms of staging, the prison doesn't have a fence, the prisoners aren't on a chain, their rooms look like decent (but cheap) accommodations, solitary confinement doesn't look very threatening, playing baseball games and barbecues are routine, and conjugal visits are allowed in a party-like atmosphere. Likewise, when we see Ray and Claude in any situation where there would normally be consequences and repercussions, we see only a glimpse of what happens and the movie fast forwards years later (examples include being thrown in solitary confinement or being caught after attempting to escape). The movie does produce a message about laughing in the face of adversity (à la Life is Beautiful), but it is conveyed through pure avoidance, i.e., not showing us any of the disturbing and brutal prison moments.
The only thing that "spoils" this pretty image is the one scene where Biscuit (Miguel A. Nunez Jr), a homosexual prisoner who has just received a release form, practically immolates himself in part due to the long institutionalisation and fear of exposure to the outside world. Besides this feeling, there are lots of other similarities to The Shawshank Redemption, and in particular, a direct message, if any, is that is that life is about retaining a sense of personal worth no matter what the circumstances may be (again, like Life is Beautiful).
Upon closer inspection, Life also is great social commentary about the nature of our legal system where many innocent people languish: as recently as a week ago, Terrance Everett of Range, New Jersey, was wrongfully arrested and beaten after being mistaken as a suspect in the murder of a police officer even though he had a perfect alibi corroborated by witnesses. The movie itself skirts any difficult questions, but keeping reality in the mind while watching Life I think leads to interesting insights.
Both Murphy and Lawrence have great chemistry and pull off great performances, as do the supporting cast. While it is true that the make-up done to age Ray and Claude by Rick Baker is brilliant, credit should also be given to the two actors who manage to grow old extremely gracefully. The out-takes at the end are cool as well. Life is worth the matinee fare.