Life (1999)


 

Life

Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy ponder the meaning of Life.

(1999) Comedy (Universal) Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Obba Babatunde, Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Brent Jennings, Bernie Mac, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Michael “Bear” Taliferro, Guy Torry, Ned Beatty, Bokeem Woodbine, Lisa Nicole Carson, Noah Emmerich, Clarence Williams III, R. Lee Ermey, Heavy D, Sanaa Lathan. Directed by Ted Demme

 

Once upon a time in America, life in prison meant precisely that. There was no early parole, no time off for good behavior. If you were sentenced to life, you could pretty much count on dying a prisoner in some godforsaken camp, farm or prison.

Rayford Gibson (Murphy) is a small-time crook in Prohibition-era New York trying to get out of debt to a Harlem mobster (James). He sets up a scheme of driving some Mississippi moonshine to the mobster’s speakeasy in New York. He ropes in as his driver Claude Banks (Lawrence), a bank teller (a bank teller named Banks? haw haw!) who has also fallen afoul of the mobster because of an unpaid gambling debt.

Gibson’s weak nature gets the better of him and after receiving the liquor shipment, he decides to do some gambling in a rural club. He gets cheated by a local card sharp (Williams) who later mouths off to the town sheriff, who murders him. Banks and Gibson have the misfortune of discovering the body, and being seen with it. They get, you guessed it, life in prison.

The two, initially antagonistic to one another, are forced to rely upon each other in the brutal work camp to which they are sentenced. Time passes and they dream of the freedom it seems will be denied them for a crime of which they aren’t guilty. Prison changes them – but will it be for the better?

There are a lot of poignant moments in Life and with Murphy and Lawrence, even more funny ones. There is social commentary in the form of how black men are treated in the South, but it isn’t strongly told or terribly compelling. Other movies explore that subject in greater depth and with greater insight.

The problem with “Life” is that the filmmakers aren’t sure whether they wanted to make a comedy, an examination of prison life in the Deep South of, say, 50 years ago, or a political/social commentary on the shaft given African Americans. They decide to do all these things, and in fact their reach exceeds their grasp.

Rick Baker does a great job of aging the two actors for their 60 year stint in prison and both actors have made a career of doing old age well; in fact, the make-up got an Oscar nomination that year. The various eras portrayed in the film are captured pretty nicely, and despite the fairly large cast the pace moves along at a good clip.

Some of the best African-American comics and comic actors in the country show up in the film, including the late Bernie Mac in a small role at the beginning of his career. The acting certainly isn’t the problem here. No, I think that the big problem is that this is kind of a Song of the South fantasy that glosses over the big issues – these guys are in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, after all – and goes for more of a sweet feeling that simply doesn’t mesh.

Life really doesn’t give you any new insights into anything. It’s mainly an excuse to pair two of the brightest comic minds at the time in America. Watching the two at work individually is fascinating, but Lawrence and Murphy don’t generate enough chemistry to hold any interest as a team, which is why they never teamed up in a movie again. Still, these two remain some of the best comedians of the past 20 years and seeing both of them together in the same film has some attraction right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Any opportunity to see Murphy and Lawrence is worth taking. Excellent supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ignores the larger issues. The chemistry between Murphy and Lawrence isn’t quite as good as I would have liked.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence as well as plenty of salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rick James’ limp as Spanky was genuine, as he’d just had hip replacement surgery.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some outtakes in which Lawrence and Murphy try to crack each other up – and in all honesty, some of these are funnier than what you’ll find in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $73.3M on a $75M production budget (estimated). The movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises

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For Love of the Game


For Love of the Game

Kevin Costner wonders why he can't have Crash Davis behind the plate.

(1999) Sports Drama (Universal) Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, Jena Malone, Brian Cox, Vin Scully, J.K. Simmons, Carmine Giovinazzo, Bill Rogers, Hugh Ross, Greer Barnes, Scott Bream, Michael Papajohn, Daniel Dae Kim, Juan Nieves, Michael Emerson. Directed by Sam Raimi

 

Kevin Costner does baseball movies like no other actor in history. Sure, Pride of the Yankees and Fear Strikes Out are arguably better movies than Field of Dreams and Bull Durham (and you’d get a pretty loud argument from some quarters) but consistently, no other actor has better understood the mystical appeal of the Grand Old Game, nor been any abler at understanding this country’s connection with it.

For my part, I’m more of a hockey fan these days, but give me a hot dog, a beer and a baseball game on a summer’s day, and suddenly I’m waxing poetic as well as nostalgic. I couldn’t tell you what appeals to me about the game … only that it does. Somehow, I think Costner is in the same boat.

In this, his third movie that has baseball at its core, Costner plays Billy Chapel, a once-dominant pitcher (think Roger Clemens) who is in the twilight of his career, described as someone with a reservation for the hall of fame, who has won every award a pitcher can win, someone who has won the adulation of the fans — and of women. You’d think he has it all.

Yet he has been dealt a double blow. His beloved Detroit Tigers, for whom he has excelled for 19 years, are on the verge of being sold to a corporate buyer. The first item on the corporate agenda is to trade the aging pitcher who still has some name value while they can still get something decent for him … and at less than his current salary. The second item is that his girlfriend, Jane (Preston) has accepted a job in London and has skipped a hotel rendezvous because she couldn’t figure out a way to tell him that their relationship is over.

All of this, and the New York Yankees too. See, the Yankees are on the verge of clinching another pennant and only the lowly Tigers, suffering through a mediocre season (with Chapel heading up the list of less-than-stellar performances) stand in their way. Yankee Stadium. A national telecast. His personal life in ruins. His professional career on the verge of ending. Seems like a pretty good time to put it all on the line one last time.

Chapel throws as hard as his aching arm will allow. For one shining evening, he is the Billy Chapel of old. Out follows out follows out. Inning after inning. And as the game progresses, Chapel is dwelling on the last five years of his life, on his relationship with Jane, on the injury that almost ended his career, and on the way a man, so admired, so confident, so great on the ballfield, could be failing so badly off of it.

As the game begins to get into the late innings, the great Billy Chapel suddenly realizes he is on verge of making baseball history – pitching a perfect game, one of the rarest occurrences in baseball. 27 men up, 27 men down, no hits, no walks, no errors.

Strangely enough, with all this baseball involved, it really is a chick flick. The center of this story is not Billy Chapel’s baseball career, nor is it the perfect game he is throwing. The center of For Love of the Game is Billy’s relationship with Jane. Preston does a great job of playing Jane as a strong woman who has been damaged by bad choices, but who has survived, and excelled in her own way. She has needed no one in her whole life  but suddenly finds herself in a relationship with a famous man, a relationship that is deepening into love.

Neither one of these people are perfect, which is what gives this movie some kick. At various times in the movie, I was shrieking the word “Bonehead!” at both of ’em, and to Costner’s credit, he plays Billy as neither the mythic baseball hero nor the aging jock but as a man who has been at the top of his profession for almost 20 years, who has given so much of himself to the game that he has nothing left for anyone else.

Unfortunately, that makes something of a quandary for director Sam Raimi. Is this a baseball movie, a love story or what? Wellllll it’s both and it’s neither and it winds up being sort of an amalgam, and thereby winds up satisfying not all of the needs of baseball fans or romance junkies. Da Queen gave For Love of the Game three hankies; a quiet little weep in the corner, but not a full-out bawling. Me, this is no perfect game by a long shot and of Costner’s baseball trilogy this is the least-known and probably the weakest film of the three, but it still has its own charms and plenty of reasons to look into renting it.

WHY RENT THIS: Costner does baseball. Need I say anything more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is no Field of Dreams. A romance masquerading as a sports drama.

FAMILY MATTERS: The movie has its share of bad language and a couple of scenes that are sexually charged.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The shot of Billy Chapel’s parents early on in the film are Kevin Costner’s actual parents. Also Daniel Dae Kim and Michael Emerson, who both had minor roles in this film, would go on to both play major roles in “Lost.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s an interactive trivia game which if you’re able to answer all the questions correctly will play an old short film, Play Ball With Babe Ruth. There’s also a text supplement which details the odds of pitching a perfect game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.1M on an $80M production budget; unfortunately, the film was a flop at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6/8

TOMORROW: Win Win