Artisan // 2003 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // May 30th, 2003
Two playaz...one big problem!
Jamal and Peanut are two halfwit homeboys just chillin' like a villain in their Compton 'hood. They spend their days cruising for ho's, drinking 40s, smokin' weed, and trying to make sense of their directionless lives. As they pull up to Jamal's house one wasted afternoon, they surprise a dimwitted thief who has just robbed the place. In the face-off frenzy, the burglar has a massive coronary and drops dead. Afraid they will be blamed post mortem, these G-dogs take the body and stick it in the trunk of the car. They then spend the rest of the day trying to get rid of this slowly petrifying "problem." In between run-ins with crack addicts and drug dealers, shiftless hookers and a crazy breakdancing dumbbell, they try and avoid the police, the corpse's ever increasing odor, and the ramifications of how a dead body in their trunk will affect the way they are Livin' Tha Life.
Livin' Tha Life starts out promisingly enough. It exudes a kind of manic energy that few comedies even attempt. It throws us directly into the lives and neighborhood of a couple of recognizable, compelling characters and asks us to follow them, almost blindly, though their action packed day. And there's more mofo's than Martin Lawrence has even thought about using. Yet somehow, the end result is neither very funny nor very entertaining. Livin' Tha Life resembles movies like Friday and How High, except with all the plot points, character dimension, and exposition removed. It's just a series of swear words, awkward scene transitions, and bellowing buffoons. Again there are a few good things here. Both leads (Jarell Jackson as Jamal and Edward D. Smith as Peanut) have a natural, easygoing manner to their performances; that is, when they're not prancing about like hyperactive ponies or scratching themselves in inappropriate places. Even though it was filmed on digital video, director Joe Brown (a veteran of hundreds of music videos) has a solid style and unique visual flair. And if there is anything funnier than a six year old cursing like a tanked-up truck driver, it's a black six year old working the wild language. By far the best thing in Livin' Tha Life is tiny Pepper Jackson, innocent enough to sell ice cream to conservative America, but here loaded for bear with bawdy verbal workouts that would make sordid sailors on shore leave soil their skivvies. He has scenes where he strikes the audience dumb with epithet filled tirades, using words you know he can't spell, but he sure as shizzle can say. But even his infantile take on lewd lingo can't really save Livin' Tha Life.
Part of the problem with Livin' Tha Life is the film's improvisational roots. Brown utilized this format to try and create something "pure," cutting out all unnecessary narrative conceits to hopefully create a work of simple comedy. Well, the movie is indeed for simpletons, since it doesn't require much from the audience except to sit back and sample the rapid-fire farcical banter screamed by the cast. If you find high pitched arguing and unfettered fury with little or no point to it humorous, you will laugh your laziness off. But since there is no real plot, we have to either be involved with the characters or their issues to find some cinematic enjoyment. And unfortunately, we find no attachment to the people in this movie. They are merely sketches and stereotypes, digging no deeper into their personalities or problems than is required to further fuel this anarchic experiment. Another predicament is the occasional pointlessness of the events taking place on screen. If we are trying to develop a seat of the pants story arc about a couple of wannabe thugs and their less that macho response to dealing with a dead body, why do we have the lesbian girlfriend, the incredibly annoying case of crabs, the mumbling street addict, and frankly, the little foul mouthed urchin? His appearances, as absolutely fabulous as they are, also highlight that this film really doesn't know what to do most of the time. So when in doubt, bring in Richard Pryor Lawrence Murphy Jr. to scream the F-word in his pre-K caterwaul. Maybe with some focus, some Mike Leigh style research and rehearsal, or even the smallest hint of where to take this meander story, Livin' Tha Life would be a reckless, raunchy urban comedy. As it stands, it's a ghetto-fied version of Art Linklater's Kids Say the Darndest Things.
Artisan does something very sneaky with the DVD release of this film. As if to give the filmmaker a chance for a few mea culpas, or to misdirect blame away from themselves, the distributing company, they give director Joe Brown a full-length audio commentary. Brown has some strange ideas about film comedy. Convinced that the best humor derives from improvised dialogue by comedians only, he constantly praises his film as being a classic for all time. His commentary (moderated by one of his friends and featuring a brief appearance by star Jarrel Jackson) is so self-congratulatory that even the informative bits sound smarmy. He is totally convinced of his genius with this film, so much so that he threatens to make all of his future comedies via the improvisation format. Guess it's nice to have the warning in advance. Along with some trailers and a nice video biography of Brown, the bonuses continue Artisan's Edict (Bad Film = Better Presentation). And they follow through to the video and audio portion of the release. As stated before, the film was shot in the high definition digital format, but thanks to a wonderful transfer, the inherent problems of video (flaring, bleeding, lack of smoothness or clarity) are nowhere to be found here. The movie looks very good, and there are no pixelization or compression issues to deal with. Sonically, the movie is mostly dialogue, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 serve it well. The occasional, non-descript hip-hop music does give the channels an occasional workout, but this disc should not be high on your "system show-off" pile of tech marvel movies.
Livin' Tha Life is a film that could only work with a highly trained cast of professional actors, all of who understood implicitly the subtle needs and nuances of improvisation. What we get, instead, is a bunch of hyperactive homies shouting at and over each other for eighty minutes. This weak-ass welfare Weekend at Bernie's deserves a drive-by.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Filmmaker's Commentary
* Sneak Peek Trailers
* Director's Biography