"[Beep] if I ever [Beep] see that [Beep] Judge Jim [Beep] Thomas, I'll [Beep] tear his [Beep] lungs out!!"—Samuel L. Jackson
Our review of Soul Men (Blu-Ray), published March 5th, 2009, is also available.
Out of Sync. Never Out of Style.
The pre-release hype for Soul Men took a massive blow when star Bernie Mac and cameo player/soul legend Isaac Hayes died a day apart in August 2008. Two months later, amid rumors of a "Soul Men curse" and talk of a quick re-edit to protect Bernie Mac's legacy, the film opened to tepid reviews, and stumbled to a weak $12,000,000 box office performance. Genius Products now brings Soul Men back for a limited engagement, and it's time to find out if Messrs. Jackson and Mac have got what it takes.
Facts of the Case
Thirty years ago, Marcus Hooks (John Legend) and the Real Deal were one of the nation's top soul acts back in the seventies. When Hooks embarked on a successful solo career, the Real Deal—Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction) and Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac, Ocean's Thirteen)—tried to carry on by themselves, but broke up over a woman.
From there, fate took them in decidedly different directions. Louis did some time for robbing a bank and now works as a mechanic, while Floyd made a fortune with a car wash franchise. Now they're most assuredly in the twilight of their lives—Louis lives in a small room, reading books; Floyd has been pushed into retirement by his nephew. While there's something to be said for Viagra-fueled romps with his generously endowed neighbor, Floyd is really looking for a reason to keep on living.
That reason for living appears, ironically enough, with the sudden death of Marcus Hooks. A memorial concert is planned at the Apollo Theater, and the concert organizer, Danny Epstein (Sean Hayes, Will & Grace), wants the Real Deal to perform. Floyd tracks down Louis and convinces him to join him for the concert. Since Louis won't fly, they drive from California to New York, playing some small venues along the way and confronting some ghosts from their past.
Yeah, the story sounds familiar—real familiar, in fact: a little bit of The Blues Brothers here, a little bit of The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys there—but the basic plot has been made gazillions of times over at this point. This movie isn't sufficiently different to break away from the pack, but Jackson and Mac manage to make the movie work through raw talent.
With the exception of some of the fancier footwork, Bernie and Sam do their own singing and dancing, and it's surprisingly effective. Mac and Jackson's voices aren't quite polished enough to pass for professional singers, but they acquit themselves just well enough for the audience to accept them. It helps that John Legend, an accomplished singer, plays Marcus Hooks—as a package, the group works. As the duo travels to Memphis, Floyd arranges a couple of appearances to get the rust off the act. The first performance, predictably, is pretty awful, but is enlivened by Louis punching out a drunken heckler. There's a lovely sequence on the side of a desert road where, hearing one of their old songs on the radio, they turn it up and run through their choreography.
As they move on, the performances get better, with a standout performance in a country-western bar highlighted by Jackson going into the audience and line dancing. Most of the music comes from the Stax catalog, or was done in a similar Memphis blues style. The director and writers decided to go with the Stax music because, as they mention in the commentary track, the Motown legacy has pretty much been run into the ground, filmwise. The finale, "A Walk in the Park," was written for the movie. A variety of issues prevented the song from being included on the soundtrack, but it can be downloaded from the movie's Web site.
The movie's strength lies with the performances. Mac and Jackson play off one another well, and have the love/hate vibe down. Mac's character is better rounded than Jackson's; Louis is pretty much characterized as "Samuel L. Jackson, pissed off." Or just "Samuel L. Jackson." In either case, Jackson is clearly having fun. Sharon Leal (Dreamgirls) brings a lot of heart to a seriously underwritten part as Cleo, the daughter of the woman who came between Louis and Floyd; if you don't suspect that her parentage will become a major plot point, just give up on anything more narratively complex than Dick and Jane books. Adam Herschman (Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay) plays the intern in charge of herding the Real Deal to the concert; he is every white-boy-in-a-black-movie stereotype you've ever seen, and it almost works. Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie) has a cameo as the MILF who reminds Floyd why he likes being on the road so much.
For all the script's weaknesses, it does not suffer much from poor pacing. Briskly paced at 100 minutes, the movie moves quickly enough that the story's weaknesses fade into the woodwork. The movie opens with an MTV documentary style history of the group, narrated by American Idol's Randy Jackson that quickly establishes the characters. An extended sequence with Floyd and his nephew (Mike Epps, The Honeymooners), almost derails the movie; the court suspects that it was added back in to give Mac more screen time. Most of the problems emanate from the middle act, in which Louis and Floyd meet Cleo and learn of her mother's death. The third act descends into farce at times, but by then we're invested enough not to mind.
Audio and video are great. Colors are rich, and there aren't any transfer issues. The sound is likewise clear; the musical numbers in particular shine.
Leading off the extras is a commentary track by director Malcolm D. Lee and writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. It's a good track, fun and engaging, as the trio covers how the project came about (Mac and Jackson wanted to make a movie together), the development of specific scenes, editing, choreography, etc. There's a lot of information, they have fun revisiting the project; they manage to avoid getting maudlin about Mac or Hayes. Most of the cast interviews pieces are a bit repetitive. There are tributes to both Mac and Hayes which are nice, and a behind-the-scenes bit on the "Boogie Ain't Nothin' (But Gettin' Down)" number. That one is a particular disappointment, because it could have been a fascinating look into the mechanics of staging a fairly complicated musical number, but in the end it doesn't really tell us much that we didn't already know from the commentary track. The best of the features is a sequence of Mac entertaining the extras in the "Apollo Theater" (shot in Shreveport).
Oh, yeah, there's some strong language in the movie. Just so you know.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There really is very little originality in the plot, to the point that the writers even cop to the movies they were emulating in the commentary track. If not for the high energy performances from the entire cast, the movie would be unwatchable. The back half of the movie in particular is fraught with all the little coincidences that strain credulity to the breaking point, many involving a just-a-bit-too-over-the-top storyline involving Cleo's abusive boyfriend Lester (Affion Crockett, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins). Not only is he abusive, but he also pirates bass lines from Real Deal songs to use in his own "music," ultimately calling forth the considerable wrath of Louis, said wrath visited upon Lester only as only Samuel L. Jackson can. Crockett flings himself into the role, but the part is clearly written simply to move the plot forward. While the performances are good, the characters themselves are weakly defined, and the movie really depends on the viewer understanding the basic conventions of the buddy movie. An entire subplot involving money needed to complete the trip adds nothing to the proceedings, and would have been better off remanded to the cutting room floor.
We don't get any performances from anyone other than the Real Deal; my guess is that the Real Deal would have been shown up by the real deal. The rationale makes sense, but a side effect of that decision is that soul music isn't really as pervasive an element in the movie as it needs to be.
At the end of the day, Soul Men is a decent enough movie, but the movie never attempts to do anything different. The producers assembled an amazingly talented cast; the real crime here is that they weren't given better material.
Not particularly guilty…but then, not particularly innocent, either.
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