The facts of "Life"

Though it's played for laughs, Eddie Murphy's new comedy offers a dose of realism about the African-American experience.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published April 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Comedy, as Sigmund Freud would tell you, is complicated. "Life" may not be a great
movie, but it packages hilarious performances by its two stars and a rich ensemble
cast, along with fluid and capable direction by Ted Demme
("Beautiful Girls"), around a surprisingly generous spirit. Inescapably, it will
be compared to Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," and not just because
they'll be listed right next to each other in Leonard Maltin's next
edition. Like Benigni's film, "Life" suggests that laughter, in some cosmic
long term, can defeat tyranny. More specifically, you could see "Life's"
narrative of wrongful imprisonment and ultimate transcendence as an allegorical
version of the African-American experience.

Almost the only explicit discussion of race and racism in the entire film is in a
brief but telling early scene, played entirely as comedy. It's 1932, and
sly-fox petty crook Ray (Eddie Murphy) and squaresville banker Claude
(Martin Lawrence) have been enlisted by a Harlem crime boss to pick up a load of
bootleg liquor in Mississippi. Along the way, they blithely wander into a
whites-only diner and try to convince the proprietor to sell them some "Negro pie."
The joke here is about black characters refusing to accept that a racist
society's norms and values have any meaning. When their spiraling bad luck
lands the duo in a hard-labor prison, framed for murder by a corrupt small-town
sheriff, no one ever comments on the fact that the prisoners are all black and
their jailers all white. Why would they? As the African-Americans both on-screen and in the
audience know perfectly well, racism is a persistent fact of American history,
and in the Jim Crow South it was no more worth talking about than the heat and

Thanks to the magic of makeup wizard Rick Baker, we follow manic motormouth Ray
and perennial grouch Claude through 65 years of bickering, scheming and mutual
recrimination, during which they never lose hope that their next stratagem will
set them free. Murphy's genius for physical comedy makes him wonderful to
watch as a crotchety old man, but the film is strongest during the early years,
when its cast -- a virtual who's who of contemporary black comedy -- keeps
the gags flowing thick and fast over a potent emotional undercurrent. Robert
Ramsey and Matthew Stone's screenplay, commissioned by Murphy, may not be
Oscar Wilde, but it's refreshingly free of the homophobia and misogyny that
marred much of the star's early work. Coming in the wake of "The Nutty
Professor" and "Holy Man," "Life" makes it clear that Murphy has entered a more
mature, even sweet-tempered phase of his comic career.

The camp inmates -- who also include Obba Babatundi as elder statesman Willie
Long and Michael "Bear" Taliferro as the fearsome Goldmouth -- swap outrageous
stories about which of them committed the most heinous crime, or are swept up in
Ray's bittersweet fantasies about the Boom Boom Room, his imaginary Harlem
nightclub. But the point is largely that they have created their own autonomous
society, limited though it may be, which all but ignores the white world.
Although "Life" is certainly accessible to non-black viewers, like Murphy's
animated TV series "The PJs" it is unabashedly told from inside black
experience and belongs to the African-American tradition of hard-luck comedy.
(Yes, Ted Demme is white; so was the director of "Black Caesar.") Camp boss
Sgt. Dillard (Nick Cassavetes) is at least as much a thwarted buffoon as a
sadistic goon, and the aging superintendent (Ned Beatty) who eventually becomes
convinced Claude and Ray are innocent is foiled by tragicomic misadventure.

There's a hilarious scene in the middle of the movie that accomplishes in miniature what
"Life" tries to do as a whole. And it left me wondering, after I and the
rest of a boisterous preview audience were done howling, exactly why it was
funny. It's 1945, and a white superintendent, red with rage, walks down a line of
black convicts, holding his cherubic mulatto grandson up next to every
sweat-drenched, impassive prisoner. Tension and menace hang in the air, but the
absurdity is thickening. Everyone except the superintendent knows that the
baby's father is a mute convict known as Can't Get Right (Bokeem
Woodbine), whose athletic talent is about to win him a ticket out of prison and
into baseball's Negro Leagues. Just as the superintendent's gaze fixes on Can't Get Right, Ray
steps forward and says, "It's
my baby, boss." A beat later, another convict steps forward to claim paternity.
Then several more men do so, including Biscuit (Miguel A. Nzqez Jr.), an
effeminate prisoner in a do-rag who seems an especially unlikely prospect.
Finally, Jangle Leg (Bernie Mac), a burly, ominous figure with an impenetrable
deep-country accent, steps off the line and growls, "I'm the pappy." In the
theater, the audience exploded. On-screen, none of the men, not even Sgt. Dillard, can
restrain themselves from losing it, and the superintendent is driven from the
scene by hoots of derision.

On one level, this is crude and perhaps slightly cruel humor -- the idea of the
beautiful, ultra-feminine Mae Rose (Poppy Montgomery) knocking boots with an
uncouth character like Jangle Leg is implausible and for that reason
irresistible. Yet it horrifies the superintendent into flight, because, well, Mae
Rose clearly does enjoy the company of black men. He can never be sure
whether she enjoyed a tender romantic interlude with Can't Get Right or got
nasty with Jangle Leg, Biscuit, Ray and every other man in the camp. Some of the
joke's value lies in the audience's appreciation of Jangle Leg and
the other men's foolhardy nobility, volunteering to face punishment in
order to protect their most vulnerable companion. But most of all, the scene is
powerful because these men -- poor, uneducated and trapped in a cruel and unjust
situation -- fight back with the one weapon at their disposal: ridicule. The
superintendent, like the society he represents, is passionately obsessed with the
purity of race and the purity of womanhood. The prisoners, although apparently
powerless, know these notions are ludicrous, and they refuse to take him or his
pompous worldview seriously.

In large part, "Life" succeeds because of its daring -- we know that Claude and
Ray's predicament is far too plausible to be amusing, but we laugh anyway.
It's that tang of realism underneath the genial, episodic course of the
film that lends it its bite. Fans will flock to see Murphy's bad-attitude
tirades and Lawrence's slow-burn double takes, and they're well worth
it. But "Life" also offers a heartfelt, even inspirational message that audiences of all races should have no difficulty grasping: Even at its most abused
and downtrodden, in the darkest days and worst places of the century, the
African-American spirit has never been broken.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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