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Film / Life (1999)

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Life is a 1999 comedy-drama film directed by Ted Demme, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.

In 1932 New York City, Claude Banks (Lawrence) gets caught up in a bootlegging scheme after a fateful run in with no-good Ray Gibson (Murphy). While making the sale in the Deep South, the boys get involved in a crooked game of cards and end up framed for the murder of the local card sharp. Sentenced to life, their friendship is forged by proximity and the dream of escape.

At first glance, it appears to be a normal Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence screwball comedy, but it actually has surprising Hidden Depths as it follows several decades of the main characters' unlikely friendship, fitting it firmly in the Dramedy territory.

Ned Beatty (as a kindly prison official), Anthony Anderson (as the prisoner who does the cooking), Bernie Mac (as a prisoner who practices Situational Sexuality), and R. Lee Ermey (as the Big Bad after a few Time Skip's) also appear.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Even the Sergeant and Hoppin' Bob have a hearty laugh when all the men in camp claim to have fathered a baby with the Superintendant's daughter.
  • The Alcatraz: As they enter the prison yard, Ray and Claude are told by Sergeant Dillard that Parchman Farm prison has no fences, because any prisoner crossing the gun line will be taken down by a sharpshooter.
  • Alone in a Crowd: When Claude is left alone at the bus station, he looks around at the outside world. It's his first time seeing it in forty years. He looks utterly lost and then catches his own wrinkled reflection in a car window.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's unclear if several of Ray and Claude's friends, such as Cookie, Jangle Leg and Goldmouth died or were released during the Time Skip.
  • Asshole Victim: Sheriff Pike killed Winston Hancock and framed Ray and Claude for his murder, and he took Ray's father's watch that Hancock gambled off him, to boot. Needless to say, no tears are shed when Superintendent Abernathy shoots him after hearing that he framed the two convicts, right when he was about to shoot them whilst Ray and Claude were fighting over which of them should shoot him.
  • Benevolent Boss: Superintendent Wilkins (Ned Beatty) treats both Ray and, especially Claude with respect and relative amiability. He even covers for them after killing Pike upon learning they truly were framed for Hancock's murder and was going to draw up their pardon papers. Sadly, he suffers a fatal heart attack before doing so.
  • Berserk Button: "White-Only Pies". Also making a wisecrack about Ray’s father and his watch is this for Ray.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Biscuit commits suicide by deliberately running over the gun line in order to be shot by one of the trustees. The reason why is because he didn’t want to go home to his mother a gay man and a gay black man at that in 1940s Mississippi. Truth in Television as homosexuality during that time around the whole world was heavily frowned upon and even more so in the black community.
  • Big Bad: Sheriff Pike, the closest thing to one the film has. It was he who framed our two leads and put them in prison for life.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Claude and Ray spend their whole lives locked away for a crime they never committed. By the time they finally pull off a successful escape, they're both old men living in the modern world, last seen at a Yankee game. Still the ending treats this in a positive light.
  • Bluff the Imposter: Claude pulls this when Ray tries to pickpocket him posing as an old friend from high school by verifying if he attended Jefferson High and not "Monroe".
  • Book Ends: Ray and Claude's funeral ...or so it seemed.
  • The Cameo: Rick James plays a 1930's gangster named "Spanky" and rapper Heavy D is a Present Day inmate.
  • Camp Gay: Biscuit.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Winston Hancock successfully deprives Ray of his money and his father's watch in a rigged gambling match. He doesn't get to return home with his winnings, though, because Sheriff Pike confronts him in the street and ultimately kills him.
  • Category Traitor: Hoppin' Bob is a prisoner, but is a trustee working with the guards, who even entrust him with a gun.
  • Chocolate Baby: The Superintendent's daughter gives birth to a very obviously not white child. This leads to a hilarious scene where the Superintendent lines the prisoners up and compares the baby to each of them, trying to root out the father.
  • Covers Always Lie: The poster for this film shows Murphy and Lawrence sandwiched between two very large inmates who obviously have a little bit o'prison rape on their minds. These two inmates, Jangle Leg and Gold Mouth, do appear in the film, but apart from making a pass at Ray and being politely rebuffed, Jangle Leg never rapes anyone (indeed, he's in a consensual relationship with Biscuit), and Gold Mouth is not a rapist: he's just a bully.
  • Credits Gag: A bloopers reel is shown during the credits. The best of which is Murphy's crack during the watch scene: "Hey, this ain't my daddy's watch!"
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Ray vs. Gold Mouth in the yard, right after Ray stands up to Gold Mouth and refuses to let him bully another prisoner out of his corn bread. Since Ray is a con artist more used to talking his way out of fights than actually engaging in them, and Gold Mouth is a massive pugilist, Ray only gets two good blows in before Gold Mouth wipes the floor with him.
  • Daddy's Little Villain: When punishing Ray and Claude after a would be escape, the superintendent asks Little Mae Rose what she thinks he should do with them. She considers for a moment, and then sentences them to a night in The Hole (her daddy extends it to a week).
  • Dashedplot Line: The story flashbacks to 1932, before skipping to 1944, then 1972, and then finally catching up to 1997 where the film started.
  • Defiant to the End: Sheriff Pike and his deputies have Winston Hancock at his mercy for not leaving town. Hancock, instead of begging for them to let him go, makes a wisecrack about sleeping with the Sheriff’s wife, which gets him knocked down to the ground. He uses a switchblade to slice Pike’s face, giving him a permanent scar.
  • Deep South: Even though they are black men in the early 1930s, Claude is shocked to see the differences in their treatment when they leave New York and head South.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Parodied, when one of the inmates gets Ray to read a letter for him that he's had for years but couldn't read, it basically contains a long list of things that have gone wrong for his family. He still thanks Ray for reading it anyway.
  • Driven to Suicide: Unable to cope with the idea of living on the outside, Biscuit commits suicide by running across the gun line.
    • Ray's father gave up hope and allegedly hung himself in prison.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: When Claude and Ray arrive in prison, Gold Mouth tries to take their cornbread, causing Ray to assert himself by refusing and get into a fight over it.
    Cookie: I appreciate you going through all the trouble over my cornbread; you don't get a lot of compliments around here.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Gold Mouth, the prison bully, has a son who's as fat and bald as he is, who he happily reunites with on a visit day.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": We never hear most of the inmates' real names. Instead they are introduced by their prison names: Biscuit, Jangle Leg, Cookie, etc. No one ever even knows Can't Get Right's real name, as he can't speak to introduce himself.
  • Everything Makes a Mushroom: Ray's attempt to escape in the crop duster ends this way. Amazingly, he's shown being shoved into The Hole with no injuries other than a hilarious covering of soot.
  • Evil Gloating: While at gunpoint, Sheriff Pike not only admits that he is the one who killed Winston Hancock, he also takes pleasure in the fact that Ray and Claude spent the last 40 years doing cheap labor for his crime.
  • Faking the Dead: How Ray and Claude escape.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Ray and Claude hate each other until they have to spend decades in each other's company.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: At the bus station Claude briefly considers running, but when he looks around and realizes how much the world has changed, he sits back down in the car and waits for the superintendent to return.
  • Foregone Conclusion: As established by the opening scene, Ray and Claude die in prison. Or did they?
  • Good Is Not Nice: Dilliard and Hoppin’ Bob are rather harsh but deep down, they genuinely care for the inmates, especially the main crew. This is most evident when Biscuit commits suicide by running across the line. Hoppin’ Bob has a clear shot to kill him but he’s visibly anxious and refrains from doing so. When another guard makes the killing shot, Hoppin’ Bob is genuinely horrified. Dilliard is then seen sadly watching from afar. Years later, Dilliard regretfully tells Claude and Ray that they are being transferred to work at the superintendent’s mansion and clearly lies about not missing then when they leave. He’s even close to tears when he tells him.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Ray and Claude eventually become these.
  • Hate Sink: Sherriff Warren Pike, the Big Bad who set the story in motion, is as reprehensible as they get. He's a smug, cruel, manipulative, highly racist and murderous bastard who knows damn well he can get away with antagonizing innocent black people with his authority. He killed Winston Hancock, framed Ray and Claude for it (and kept Ray's daddy's watch for himself), made it look as though he was a reasonable but firm person (when he's actually the very definition of a Dirty Cop) and even laughs at Ray and Claude when they're given the life sentence. When he's finally outed for his crimes forty years later, he shows absolutely no remorse for anything and gloats that the state of Mississippi "got forty years of cheap labor out of the deal" and even seems bewildered that the Superintendent considers what he did an awful crime.
  • Hope Spot: When the new superintendent Dexter Wilkins finds out Ray and Claude are innocent, he immediately moves to write their pardon - right after he gets out of the restroom. Unfortunately, the stress of the day's events causes a heart attack and he dies without drawing up the papers or telling a soul.
    • Earlier, Ray and Claude are in talks with a Negro Baseball League recruiter to help them get out of prison by acting as Can't Get Right's handlers. While mourning the death of Biscuit, Can't Get Right gets his parole papers, and the agent tells Claude and Ray he tried to secure their freedom but couldn't.
  • I Am Spartacus: The entire camp claims fathership of Mae Rose's child to save Can't Get Right.
  • Imagine Spot: The inmates collectively have one when Ray talks about his dream of owning his nightclub, "Ray's Boom-Boom Room".
  • Innocently Insensitive: Warden Wilkins talks about his upcoming retirement in front of Claude (who is serving life in prison). TO his credit, Wilkins quickly realizes this and apologizes to him.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Can't Get Right is obviously very simple and never speaks. However, his potential major-league baseball skills earn him a full pardon and he manages to have an affair with Superintendent Abernathy's daughter, even fathering a child with her.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Willie never said Ray and Claude didn't succeed in their escape plan.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The closing scene is intended to be highly uplifting and spotlight Ray and Claude's friendship and freedom. However, the song chosen was "What Would You Do" by City High, which is about a woman explaining her reasons for becoming a hooker. The song was obviously only chosen for the single chorus line "But for me this is what I call life."
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The new superintendent explains to the police that the shooting was a Dick Cheney-style hunting accident when really he shot and killed Sheriff Pike after learning of Ray and Claude's innocence.
  • Not Worth Killing: Hoppin’ Bob hesitates to shoot Biscuit when he deliberately runs across the gun line, although he has a clear shot. Sadly, another guard kills him.
  • Odd Couple: Straitlaced Claude and petty thief Ray.
  • The Old Convict: Claude and Ray become this over decades of incarceration. Also Willie as well.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Ray's watch, given to him by his deceased father who hung himself in prison.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Wilkins the new superintendent is an amiable man who is fairly polite to his trustees (Claude and Ray), doesn't seem to abuse his power and sides with Claude and Ray against Pike and would have had them pardoned after learning of their innocence if he'd lived long enough.
    • Sergeant Dillard, arguably. He's a guard who takes keeping his prisoners from escaping seriously, but is also willing to cut them some slack at times.
    • Downplayed with the baseball league official who gets out Can't Get Right as a player and does make an effort to secure a release for Claude and Ray and is somewhat apologetic when he can't.
  • Pet the Dog: Sergeant Dillard selling Claude and his girlfriend a 'temporary marriage license" to make them eligible for a conjugal visit the one time she visits him.
  • Punishment Box: Prisoners are punished with time in "The Hole," which is an outhouse sized shed with no light or plumbing out in the sun in the South.
  • Red Right Hand: Claude recognizes the real murderer, Sheriff Pike, by his accent and the scar across his cheek.
  • Sand In My Eyes: After hearing Ray and Claude's story, one of the young inmates claims his tears are from "allergies".
  • Scary Black Man: Granted, all the prisoners are black- in the 1930's, anyway. The prison becomes less segregated in the modern day- but Goldmouth, the local bully, fits this trope, as the tallest and most heavyset of the lot. His first scene ends with him challenging Ray to a fight after failing to bully Claude into giving up his cornbread.
  • She's All Grown Up: Little Mae Rose, Superintendent Abernathy's daughter is introduced as an adolescent and is fairly coy and pretty as an adult after the Time Skip.
  • Signature Item Clue: Gibson sees his father's heirloom pocket watch—the one he lost to the card shark he was convicted of murdering—in the possession of the deputy who arrested him for the murder, and puts two and two together.
  • Situational Sexuality: Biscuit and Jangle Leg are together. However, Jangle Leg prefers women when he can get to them such as the party scene and his comment about Claude’s hand being soft like a woman’s.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: Subverted at the very end when we learn Ray and Claude faked their deaths to finally escape prison.
  • Starter Villain: Spanky Johnson, the gangster who sends Ray and Claude to the South to pick up booze for him to pay off their debts, thus setting the scene for them getting arrested.
  • Suicide by Cop: Biscuit’s demise.
  • Time-Compression Montage: After closely following their first 12 years of incarceration, the film skips to the mid 70s via a montage of historical events and images of the other inmates fading as they either died or were released.
  • Three-Month-Old Newborn: When the superintendent lines the convicts up to compare the baby to them, it should be the day after its birth. The baby is wide-eyed, holding its head up on its own, and working its hands. It's clearly at least 3-5 months old. note 
  • Title Drop: All over since it's a common, one-syllable word, but notably when the judge sentences Ray and Claude to "LIFE" imprisonment.
  • True Companions: The inmates form an odd family of sorts.
  • The Voiceless: Can't Get Right has no dialogue. It's unclear if he can't speak or just chooses not to.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: The main crew of inmates are these, but Ray and Claude epitomize this trope after 60+ years together.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Ray Gibson and Claude Banks now live in Harlem...Together.
  • Where da White Women At?: Can't Get Right can't keep his eyes off of Mae Rose. Ray and Claude continually try to warn him what kind of trouble this could get him in.
  • Working on the Chain Gang: Claude and Ray are sentenced to work on a chain gang after being wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn't commit.
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Ray, after being on the receiving end of a Curb-Stomp Battle from Goldmouth, taunts him "I know a bitch named Della hit harder than you." He still loses.
    • Della stands for Della Reese who’s character got into with Eddie’s character in Harlem Nights and who Eddie also lost a fight too in a one-sided affair.
  • Zany Scheme: Ray's constant escape plots.