(On Cable TV, April 2017) There is a big risky gamble at the heart of Life—the idea that you’d be able to create comedy out of a dramatic, even tragic premise: two innocent young men condemned for life in prison. Featuring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, no less. How do these clashes of sensibility would play out? As it turns out, much of Life is indeed dragged in all directions. At the macro-level, it’s a sad story, but at the micro-level, it’s Murphy and Lawrence insulting themselves with R-rated profanity-laden dialogue. It’s dumb and sad and funny and silly and weighty in random measures. The production values are fine, and there are two or three sequences that float above the rest—the dream nightclub sequence is particularly well-handled, for instance. During much of its duration, Life feels unfocused, but it does attaint some of its sought-after poignancy late in its running time, as the impact of time becomes more visible on the characters. It’s at that point when we remember what life in prison can mean, and the opportunities stolen from the characters. Even Lawrence isn’t annoying during that segment, making this the high point of his acting career so far. It’s a brief, but affecting moment … and then the film kind of squanders it by going through the motions of resolving long-held conflicts, allowing the characters one last devious plan and ending on an improbable happy ending. Even in concluding, Life does try to have it several ways at once, and feels a bit weaker for attempting it. While the film is worth a look, it may be more for studying its flaws that appreciating its qualities.
(On DVD, October 2016) For some reason, Tim Robbins’s persona in my head has solidified as a bit of a semi-presidential intellectual at this point. So it feels surprising to see him ham it up in Nothing to Lose as an ad executive whose life crumbles to dust and is forced to ally himself with a disreputable quasi-criminal. The surprises don’t stop there: Martin Lawrence is almost likable as the motormouth criminal, which doesn’t reflect the unbearableness of his later performances. The rest of the film, though, plays almost on autopilot, with only a few surprises along the way. The first act chronicles how a successful man appears to lose nearly everything, while the second act shows him regrouping and the third taking vengeance against someone who has apparently wronged him. It’s familiar stuff, unimaginably contrived but moved along at a decent clip. Twenty years later, it’s potable but hardly revelatory—the social issues in allying a white executive with a black quasi-criminal film are nearly the same in 2016, which is depressing enough. At least there are a few laughs along the way. The soundtrack nearly feels like a time capsule at this point. While Nothing to Lose isn’t essential viewing, it’s not a complete waste of time either.