Bustin' Loose

Stirring it up: Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence in Life

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It's tempting to rename Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence's new film Grumpy Old Black Men. Certainly, Life's tale of an odd couple aging over 60 years of imprisonment boasts enough bickering, mugging, and hottie-ogling to dance cheek-to-flaccid-jowl with the Lemmon and Matthau franchise. In the movie's later scenes, Murphy dodders like he was born to: Robbed of his usual fuck-you grin by the stiff makeup, he must make merry with his eyes, and, restless and articulate, they're more than up to the task. Lawrence's mask of put-upon outrage also gets a much-needed rest: As his character turns gray, he begins to exude less little-dog hysteria than a dogged slow burn. Watching these two stretch--tag-teaming who gets to be the straight man, and who the fool--is a pleasure in itself.

Lawrence's Claude Banks and Murphy's Ray Gibson have more reason to be pissy, though, than those original, cranky old white men: They're not just raging against the dying of penile potency. Their young selves meet during Prohibition at a Harlem speakeasy: One is an ambitious soon-to-be bank teller and the other is an amateur rake. Short on funds because of some improbable mishaps, buppie wannabe Claude and street-slick Ray are soon speeding down to Mississippi on a bootlegging run. After they purchase the hooch, Ray convinces an anxious Claude to party with the country bumpkins. They both get took, and, worse, they're framed for a murder committed by a white sheriff. This being 1932, they're lucky the judge orders, "Life!"

It doesn't take much squinting to see Ray and Claude's predicament as a gloss on the casualties of today's "war on drugs." Twenty percent of American black men now go to prison at some point in their lives; that's a lot of Rays and Claudes. Director Ted Demme emphasizes the unequal prosecution of drug crimes by casting every one of the duo's fellow inmates black; if Southern prisons were segregated in the '30s, it's not explained, and the visual impact of all these dark-skinned bodies in prison stripes leaves contemporary statistics real as dirt. A deft fantasy sequence saves the other inmate characters from gross caricature: The retard, the lunkhead, the homo, and the veteran enter as expected yet depart with something alive glinting in their eyes. Nearly all these men die in jail, bound within a social stereotype that equates blackness with criminality. The actors--Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nuñez Jr., Bokeem Woodbine--make it hurt.

I don't want to give the impression, however, that Life raps out its message with a big stick. Wyclef Jean's mournful score does result in some heavy-handed moments, especially when coupled with scenes of the inmates' deterioration. But for the most part Life skips lightly along, having fun with potty jokes and straight men's jail jitters. Murphy and Lawrence pitch comic woo of all stripes, from brilliantly timed asides to loose-limbed pratfalls. Often I giggled till I coughed, while my 14-year-old companion was whooping and clutching her tummy. (To whom it may concern: Flocks of "muthafucka's" and "nigga's" flutter past the ears here.)

The humor allows (invites?) scriptwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone to land cruder political blows than Spike Lee could ever get away with. With just one exception, every white character is either a dimwit or a bully or both. Life deliberately inverts the traditional Hollywood color dynamic by offering its black characters character and its white characters a couple of silly lines and a prop to hold. That this prop tends to be a rifle gives the turnabout some juice: According to Life's clever calculation, it's bigotry that makes men rigid and one-dimensional, not poverty or a boot on your neck. (The same doesn't go for the movie's female characters, who are all blanks, regardless of race and circumstance. Oh well.)

Ray and Claude's life sentence, then, is to be black, male, and nonathletic citizens of the United States in the Twentieth Century. Unlike so many similarly condemned movie figures, they don't try to gun their way out. More realistically, if just as hopelessly, they fight each other. When the street "nigga" and the educated "Negro" do put their minds together, they achieve a kind of liberation from racism's prison. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' vision of this freedom is not especially revelatory. They know it, too--the lame ending is chased rapidly by screwy outtakes. It is finally within those fabulous flubs that you discover Life's clearest idea of escape: the ridiculously fine grace of laughter.

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