Ted Demme's Life gets off to a lively start at swanky Club Spanky's, a 1930s Harlem nightclub into which strolls Ray Gibson (Eddie Murphy), a fast-talking hustler who spots his next target in straight-arrow Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence). Banks is to begin an upstanding new job the next day as a bank teller, but his start date is suddenly postponed, permanently, it turns out, when Spanky (played with terrific zeal, by, of all people, funkmaster Rick James), decides it's time that Gibson and Banks make good on their respective debts to him. Spanky sends them south to Mississippi on a bootlegging job, and after a night of poker and womanizing, the pair find themselves framed for murder and handed life sentences in a state prison, where they spend the next 55 years.
Life's opening Harlem sequence is funny and vibrant, and leads one to expect that Murphy and Lawrence, who have great chemistry together (the pair first teamed in 1992's Boomerang), will take us on a snappy, sassy ride. Ray and Claude are a classic odd couple: the wiseass and the stuffed shirt with nothing in common, who have to spend the rest of their lives together trying to get along. Murphy dreamed up Life's premise, but his screenwriters, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, deserve hard time for the tired, plodding shtick they concoct once the duo end up in prison stripes. By the time the old-man makeup is trotted out, you feel like you've been behind bars for decades as well (or at least stuck in Grumpy Old Men 3). Director Demme, who helmed last year's sorely underrated Monument Ave., has promising raw materials in Murphy and Lawrence, but the film's tone is all wrong. Murphy does his best to ignite the proceedings with his usual stream of wisecracks, and he and Lawrence bicker amusingly with each other, but the script stumbles when it attempts to poignantly explore the fact that these guys are unjustly doomed to spend their lives in this state-run extension of slavery. Serious sequences, such as when a prisoner makes a suicide run to his death rather than face life in the outside world, come off awkwardly, and don't deliver the emotional punch Demme intends.
Lawrence makes a nicely gruff Felix Unger-type counterpart to Murphy, as he angrily reacts to his fellow comic's manic patter, keeping his resentment strong through their old age. Fortunately, Life features good supporting casting which makes the audience's sentence more pleasant. Clarence Williams III shines briefly as a duplicitous card shark, and the boys' fellow prisoners include Bernie Mac as lecherous Jangle Leg, Miguel A. Nu˜ez, Jr. as queenish Biscuit, Michael 'Bear' Taliferro as menacing, cornbread-loving Goldmouth, and Bokeem Woodbine as mute Can't Get Right, star of the inmates' baseball team. Though the men inside can't go beyond the 'gun line' marking the prison boundary, three crisply conceived and edited montage sequences remind us that history trudges on, as everything from World War II to Martin Luther King, Jr. passes them by. Lawrence and Murphy are a well-matched duo, but perhaps only when they tackle a livelier genre, like action comedy, will their combined talents truly combust.