A couple of discomforting observations cast a bittersweet pall over Soul Men, an otherwise funny comedy starring Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson as a couple of aging backup singers in a famous '60s soul trio. Our knowledge about this being the last film Mac completed before his untimely death constantly draws our morbid attention to the husky funnyman -- as if we might be able to notice visual signs of his poor health. Then, when Isaac Hayes appears on screen we suddenly remember he died just one day after Bernie Mac. There's also the unfortunate abundance of coincidental death jokes running throughout. Add the fact that nothing in the film really works except the comedic timing of Mac and Jackson and you have a movie that will probably be remembered only with a footnote of it being Bernie Mac's last film.
Director Malcolm D. Lee (Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins), working from a script by Robert Ramsey, ends up with a road trip musical of sorts that begins when Floyd (Mac) and Louis (Jackson) decide to make a cross-country drive to sing at the funeral of the lead crooner of their once popular soul-singing trio. Of course they've been "out of the business" for many years -- Floyd now relegated to a retirement village and Louis to a flea-bag flophouse -- and haven't even talked in decades after one stole the other's girlfriend. Along the trip from L.A. to New York, the pair polishes their act by performing at roadside hotels and unlikely honkytonks, eventually meeting up with a young woman (Sharon Leal) who could be one of the men's now-grown daughter.
Much of the movie's entertainment value comes from the comedic conflict generated between Floyd and Louis. Floyd is bored with retirement and salivates at the chance to be in the limelight once again; Louis is a cantankerous old cuss who just wants to be left alone to rot away in his filthy apartment. Put these two opposites together in the close confines of a Cadillac Eldorado christened "The Muthaship," and there's bound to be comedic gold mined via the same formula used by TV's The Odd Couple back in the day. But a funny thing happens along the way… and not "ha-ha" funny, but rather "strange" funny. For some inexplicable reason, Jackson's "abrasive" Louis becomes an "endearing" Louis about halfway through the film, sapping it of its amusing dynamic. Would Oscar and Felix have been half as entertaining if they were kindred spirits?
Occasionally the film flirts with the bigger aspiration of having something important to say about the relationship of life and music. But it never quite gets there, mainly because it doesn't try. It's happy just being a superficial slapstick vehicle for Mac and Jackson to showcase their comedic talents. But even then it's overwhelmed by cheap production values, a stock storyline, and some tertiary characters -- namely Affion Crockett as Lester -- that go way over the top.
Soul Men is a mediocre film at best, buoyed by the abrasive chemistry of Mac and Jackson who hurl MF-bombs with the linguistic flourish of some of the world's best orators. It works best when they're alone on the screen together as they jolt the production to life with their comedic stylings. It's unfortunate that this movie will go down as Bernie Mac's swansong. He certainly deserved better.
(Released by the Weinstein Company and rated “R” for pervasive language, and sexual content including nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com .