A rusty road comedy with heart, "Soul Men" works best as a tribute to the late Bernie Mac (2007's "Pride
"), an eager-to-please entertainer and actor who exposed more depth beneath the surface of his roles than perhaps some people gave him credit for. Of course, when the film, directed by Malcolm D. Lee (2008's "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins
"), was shot, there was no way of knowing that this would be Mac's swan song. Taking into account the character he is playingan over-the-hill, once-famous back-up singer who is given one last chance at glorythe picture feels like it eerily parallels Mac's own real-life confrontation with his mortality.
If Bernie Mac's ultimate fate gives "Soul Men" an added bittersweet quality that it otherwise would not have had, one must look at the entire cinematic canvas before him or her. Taken as a whole, the film is uneven and flawed, its profanity- and sex-laced aims for comedy not very funny and the trajectory of its storyline more than a little tired and long-winded. The screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (2005's "Man of the House
") is hit-and-miss, too cute and mugging at times, but also with some isolated sweet moments. Fans of Bernie Mac won't want to miss his final screen performance. Everyone else need not bother.
In the 1960s and early '70s, Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal was one of the hottest Motown groups around. Before the decade was over, Marcus (John Legend) went on to a successful solo career while back-up singers Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) experienced a personal falling-out and drifted into obscurity. Nearly thirty years later, Marcus passes away from a heart attack and Floyd, a newly retired car wash entrepreneur, and Louis, an ex-convict, are presented the opportunity of traveling to New York City to perform at VH1's farewell tribute at the Apollo. When Floyd comes knocking, Louis makes no bones about still being sore over the woman Floyd once stole away from him. In an attempt to smooth things over, they decide to drive cross-country together for the concert. Misadventures from Flagstaff to Amarillo to Memphis ensue, as does the appearance of 27-year-old Cleo (Sharon Leal), who unknowingly could be either one's daughter.
"Soul Men" strives for big laughs, but only squeezes out a couple. Jennifer Coolidge (2006's "For Your Consideration
") is her usual firecracker self as Rosalee, a woman that Floyd picks up in an Amarillo country-western bar, giving a frightful definition to the term "velveteen rub." A drunken man who stumbles up onstage at a sparsely populated hotel lounge in Flagstaff and starts mimicking Floyd's and Louis' motions is also amusing. Otherwise, the comedy is notably lacking, trying too hard, for one, and blanketed by the pall that is Bernie Mac's untimely death. The film also drags on way too long, getting lost in a third act that includes a destructive rumble between Floyd and Louis in a hotel suite, a double arrest, and a strained misunderstanding between the guys and Cleo. Just when the movie should be drawing to a close, all of these tedious conflicts suddenly arise and have to be worked out. The climax at the Apollo farewell tribute is rather creepy at first, with Floyd and Louis ending up in the piano-shaped casket already occupied by the deceased Marcus Hooks, but comes back for a final performance that is unexpectedly touching.
Bernie Mac is the centerpiece of the film, imbuing the soft-hearted role of Floyd with the soul of the title. This is one of his very best performances, and so it is fitting that it would be his last. As Louis, Samuel L. Jackson (2008's "Lakeview Terrace
") is just finehe has a nice scene where he overhears the angelic-voiced Cleo singing and listens inbut overshadowed by his co-star. Sharon Leal (2007's "This Christmas
") is lovely as Cleo, who tags along with Floyd and Louis to New York, though her part could have done well to be more fleshed out. The late Isaac Hayes also makes a cameo as himself.
When Floyd and Louis bond on a stretch of desert highway, singing to Marvin Gaye's "I'm Your Puppet," it is a magical moment. Had "Soul Men" concentrated on its low-key dramatic aspects and moved away from its more cloying comic histrionics, the film would have been better for it. As it currently stands, the movie doesn't work half the time and doesn't add up to as much as it strives for. The closing credits piece where Bernie Mac discusses his perseverance and uphill climb in achieving the career he always strived for is a sincere sendoff to a performer who still had a lot more to offer the world. It is the best thing about a film that, truthfully, wouldn't otherwise be anything special.