Terrific duo finds comedy in doing 'Life'

No show-business tradition is sturdier than the two-man comedy team, and no contemporary stars are better suited to the format than Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Pairing them was a terrific idea - they first worked together in 1992 - and their partnership is the main reason to see "Life," the new comedy from director Ted Demme.

The story begins in 1932, when we meet smart-alecky Ray and Claude in a New York nightclub. They're not the most virtuous guys in town, but their good natures make them incapable of any crime more serious than the bootlegging scheme they enter as a way of erasing some bad debts.

This brings them to Mississippi, where a detour into a crooked card game ends with a gambler being murdered and you-know-who standing over the corpse just as some local racists happen to stroll up.

Our heroes are innocent, but try telling that to the outraged judge who sends them to the penitentiary for the rest of their natural lives. We go there with them, watching them sway between hope and despair as the months - then the years and the decades - roll by.

"Life" relies on lowdown humor for many of its laughs, peppering viewers with four-letter words and crude, sometimes homophobic sex jokes. Its best scenes rise way above such vulgarity, though, capturing the camaraderie that can blossom among inmates despite - or because of - the awful pressures they face.

It's great fun watching a platoon of convicts make a "Spartacus"-type mass confession to protect their most vulnerable companion. And even the prison superintendent gets to show a moment of true humanity when Ray and Claude face a crisis late in the story.

The movie doesn't care much about realism, depicting the rigors of prison-farm life about as convincingly as "Life Is Beautiful" portrays a Nazi death camp. But it makes up in energy what it lacks in authenticity, especially when Murphy and Lawrence are in high gear.

The sharp supporting cast includes Ned Beatty as the superintendent, Clarence Williams III as the ill-starred gambler, and Bokeem Woodbine as one of the few inmates to leave the prison in an upright position. Geoffrey Simpson did the smooth cinematography.

* Rated R; contains violence, vulgar language, and sexual innuendo.

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