Hard as it may be to remember, there was a time when black cinema wasn't an endless parade of busted caps and house parties. Though the glory days of "A Soldier's Story" and even "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings" are all but forgotten, the period dramedy "Life" spends a good portion of its running time earning favorable comparisons with those seminal works of African-American portraiture. The throwback is so satisfying that one is even more disappointed to finally discover that this Life leads nowhere, sputtering out in an anticlimactic wheeze of low humor that betrays our trust and dashes our faith in the genre yet again.
Nothing earth-shattering appears to be going on in the film's first act, which sees two-bit hustler Ray Gibson (Eddie Murphy) running afoul of the sleazy kingpins who run the Harlem of the 1930s. Though Murphy shows considerable guts in revisiting the territory of the disastrous "Harlem Nights," there's no kick to the cocktail until Gibson meets Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence), a naive bank teller who's in dutch to the very same crime lords. Soon, the two are running moonshine across state lines to pay off their debts, bickering all the way in time-tested buddy-picture fashion.
The uneasy alliance faces its greatest test when Gibson and Banks are framed for a Mississippi murder and dealt a life sentence in a hellhole of a Southern prison camp. As soon as the flabbergasted captives -- and we the viewers -- realize that their stay is to be permanent, "Life" becomes an unexpectedly tender portrayal of African-American bonding in the shadow of institutionalized white evil.
Far from a cast of mugging minstrels, the luckless, illiterate brothers Gibson and Banks encounter in the pen are drawn with rare sympathy and depth. Even the inevitable don't-drop-the-soap gags have a sweet payoff, thanks to a moving turn by Miguel A. Nuñez Jr. as a jailhouse queen who'd rather drop dead from breaking rocks than return home to break his mother's heart with his homosexuality.
If there's a flaw in these fine moments, it's the lack of onscreen chemistry between the tired Murphy and the ready-to-go Lawrence. Though the script establishes Gibson as the relatively older, more world-wise of the duo, Lawrence is by far the more mature performer, exhibiting unanticipated vulnerability and soul in what might have been a standard-issue "wacky sidekick" role. Murphy does his usual shuck and jive, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to portray the composed authority his part increasingly comes to require. Resisting with all his might the transition to celluloid middle age, he'd clearly love to trade places with Lawrence and once again be the attention-getting court jester -- but those "48 Hours" went by a long time ago.
Even Lawrence's talent doesn't survive the film's boneheaded final minutes, which jump ahead to the pair's sunset years and into another picture entirely. The year 1972 finds our heroes still stuck in the cooler, still arguing, but now trapped behind pounds of unconvincing makeup that's meant to simulate old age. Their mouths have gotten filthier, too, their verbal sparring now restricted to "Def Comedy Jam" levels of sub-humor.
Everything that follows is played for the cheapest of cheap laughs, as if there's no more use to be found in a couple of aged black convicts than comic relief. After all that we've seen, we have a right to expect so much more. "Grumpy Old Negroes" just doesn't cut it.