Don't fight the feeling.
The good news about The Fighting Temptations is that it's one of the best half-hour gospel performance DVDs you'll see all year. The bad news is that The Fighting Temptations isn't a gospel performance DVD, it's a comedy with a gospel theme, which means that the bulk of the film's two-hour running time is taken up with the manic flailings of once funny, now exasperating Cuba Gooding Jr., in the kind of by-the-numbers "let's put on a show" comic melodrama that was already green with mold in 1992, when Sister Act briefly revitalized the formula. This time around, Gooding plays a smarmy, but essentially well-meaning con man who, lured by the promise of a huge inheritance, ends up helping a small-town church choir compete in a "Gospel Explosion" competition.
The Fighting Temptations is the kind of film that feels like it was plotted out on a piece of scratch paper, inspired by a "how to write your first script" screenwriting workbook. First of all, we need our protagonist to start out as a cynical, self-serving jackass, so that he can undergo an uplifting transformation by the end. Let's see…should he be a lawyer? Nah, too obvious. I know—let's make him an advertising exec! And since the character is African-American, let's show how out of touch with his roots he is by having him pitch the idea of marketing malt liquor to small-town African-Americans. That way, he can make a second pitch at the end of the film, except—get this—he'll have a change of heart and tell those amoral old white men where they can stick their sleazy ad campaign! And we all know that love is what transforms selfish jerks into cuddly sweethearts, so let's have him fall for a beautiful woman who inspires our protagonist to go from "zero to hero!" I could go on, but my synopsis would be no less tiresome than the actual film. Suffice it to say that Gooding's lowlife con man, amazingly enough, winds up living in one of the very small towns he seeks to exploit and undergoes a spiritual awakening in the midst of helping the community he comes to sincerely care about.
It's still possible to make a decent movie incorporating this premise, as tired as it is. Witness 2003's School of Rock, which overpowered its clichés with inspired casting, witty dialogue, and sheer attitude. Each of these elements is present in The Fighting Temptations, but in such trace amounts as to be lost in a vast sea of overacting, flat direction, stale jokes, and painfully trite melodrama. From the shrewish, bluenosed church member who's the villain of the piece, to the requisite ragtag collection of unlikely choir singers, it's the rare moment in this film that doesn't feel cribbed from the "Best of Formulaic Comic Melodramas" reel that runs nonstop in the circle of Hell reserved for Hollywood studio execs.
On the other hand, there are the musical performances, which jump and crackle and are quite obviously the only reason this film was even made. It's almost worth sitting through 122 minutes of Cuba Gooding Jr. squeezing out the last bitter dregs of his Oscar-winning "show me the money" schtick to be able to hear gospel greats like The O'Jays and Shirley Caesar doing their thing. And while Beyoncé Knowles gives the kind of acting performance of which one can only say, "what an amazing singer," and her chemistry with Gooding is slightly hotter than a damp sponge, the woman can definitely make music.
The Fighting Temptations gets a generous treatment on DVD courtesy of Paramount, which has given the film a decent widescreen 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer (let's pretend the pan and scan edition doesn't exist, shall we?) that's a little soft and grainy in the manner of a medium-budget, non-blockbuster comedy, but with an excellent, unmarked print featuring warm and well-balanced colors. As befits a film with music as the spotlight, the DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track along with 2.0 Surround English, Spanish, and French tracks. The non-music segments are primarily dialogue-focused and confined to the front channels, but the musical numbers make good use of the surround field and sound terrific.
They say that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short; the extras on this disc embody both parts of that saying, offering extended versions of both the musical numbers (good) and non-musical scenes (very, very bad). Since the theatrical cut of the film is already bloated with filler and flabby, poorly paced sequences, the notion of watching even longer versions of already overlong scenes is a horrifying one indeed. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer for this film and four others, including the aforementioned, vastly superior School of Rock.
While I'd never recommend seeing the theatrical version of The Fighting Temptations, I would recommend the DVD as at least a rental for anyone interested in R&B or gospel music, simply for the extended musical numbers included on the disc, as well as the ability to fast forward past the interminable, formulaic fluff to get to the good parts. This is one case in which the DVD presentation far outclasses the film itself.
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