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Soul Men (A Movie Review)

SOUL MEN (2008)

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac, Sharon Leal, Sean Hayes, Affion Crockett, Adam Herschman, John Legend, Fatso-Fasano, Jackie Long, Mike Epps, Isaac Hayes, Vanessa Del Rio, P.J. Byrne, Ken Davitian, Jennifer Coolidge, Sara Erikson, Soledad O'Brien, Millie Jackson and the voice of Randy Jackson.

Screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee.

Distributed by Dimension Films. 100 minutes. Rated R.

Soul Men carried an awful lot of extra baggage with it when it reached theaters. This was because this past summer, as filming of the movie was winding down, over a 24-hour period one of the stars (Bernie Mac) and a well-known supporting actor and musical contributor to the movie (Isaac Hayes) both died unexpectedly.

This tragic circumstance is of course no fault of the movie, however it turns out that the deaths cast a pall over the whole enterprise. It is a pall that a lightweight trifle like Soul Men will have a hard time overcoming.

In fact, the filmmakers acknowledge this fact and do a heartfelt tribute to Bernie Mac (and to a lesser extent Isaac Hayes) over the closing credits. While it is a nice gesture on the movie’s part and obviously done of great love, it feels awkward following the light comedy which preceded it. It doesn’t help that they don’t exactly sell their point. They show Bernie Mac talking about how important his stand-up comedy is to him and then cut to a few quick clips of him doing some of the weakest stand-up the talented comic ever performed. Couldn’t they have found some better clips?

However, it is not fair to judge Soul Men due to its heartbreaking aftermath. It should be taken for its own values as a film. Sadly, here also it doesn’t live up to its potential. Soul Men wastes good performances by Mac and Samuel L. Jackson (if not exactly earthshakingly unique for either actor – both had played variations of these roles many times before) on a clunky, rather clichéd, broad farce.

Soul Men is actually a loose variation on Neil Simon’s classic screwball comedy The Sunshine Boys – in which the estranged former stars of a famed showbiz team have to reunite after years of hard feelings for one last comeback performance. Of course in Soul Men they are an R&B backing group rather than the vaudeville comics of Sunshine Boys, but the basics are the same.

Mac and Jackson play former R&B stars Floyd Henderson and Louis Hinds. They had been the members of The Real Deal – the backing vocalists for soul superstar Marcus Hooks (John Legend). After Hooks goes solo, the backing band’s career tanks. They fight over a woman and break up the group, eventually settling into their lives away from the spotlight. Hinds is in and out of jail over the years, while Henderson makes a boring living owning car washes. The opportunity for them to perform again comes when Hooks dies, and they are asked to reunite for a tribute concert for the singer who years before had left them behind.

Frankly, neither Mac nor Jackson was quite a good enough singer to buy them in the roles. This is particularly noticeable when a real singer is given the microphone – specifically Legend in flashbacks as the Real Deal’s former leader and Sharon Leal (Boston Public, DreamGirls) as the daughter of the woman both men once loved, who is forced by chance to become their backing vocalist and just happens to turn out to be a kick-ass soul singer. Mac and Jackson’s vocals, while not horrible, just can’t come close to keeping up.

The two singers have to take a road trip together across country in Henderson’s vintage Caddy – getting on each other’s nerves, learning to perform again, meeting up with groupies (funny comedienne Jennifer Coolidge is completely shamed in this trashy role), fighting, getting into crashes and eventually making an uneasy truce.

None of it is particularly clever, nor is any of it particularly surprising. Some parts – particularly scenes with an oddly embalmed-looking crazy gangsta rapper who has it out for the guys – are downright stupid.

You go into the movie wanting to like Soul Men, but it just isn’t all that good. Sadly, if not for its tragic back story, no one in the world would remember Soul Men at all five minutes after it left the screen.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: January 31, 2009.


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