It's a damn shame. As a stand-up Bernie Mac
had no equal. He even made a winning transition to television with his hit semi-autobiographical sitcom. But as an actor, success as the lead in a major motion picture seemed to elude him. Sure, Mac made appearances in such monster hits as the Ocean's franchise and Transformers
, but his contributions were as a supporting, not starring role. That's why it's a shame he had to die before Soul Men could hit theaters. Under the watchful eye of growing genre ace Malcolm D. Lee
, Mac finally finds a main character to match his oversized abilities. While not his actual swan song, it becomes a fitting (if ironic) finale.
During their heyday in the late '60s/early '70s, Marcus Hooks (John Legend
) and the Real Deal -- Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson
) -- were R&B icons. But as with most legendary acts, acrimony led to a split-up and solo work. Hooks was a smash. The Real Deal had one hit, and then faded into obscurity. When death takes the famed frontman away from the world, VH1 decides to hold a tribute concert, and the Deal's former manager (Sean Hayes
) is selected to secure their participation. Unfortunately, Henderson is living in an upscale retirement community, while Hinds is trying to put his life back together after a stint in prison. Refusing the offer at first, they finally embark on a five-day cross-country road trip. Playing pick-up dates along the way, they hope to make it to New York's Apollo before the final curtain falls. Article continues below
You can tell that Soul Men is a movie at war with itself. On the one hand you instantly recognize the cliché riddled plotting of writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. The narrative frequently feels as familiar and formulaic as the duo's derivative Big Trouble or Man of the House. And then there's the pure comedic chemistry of Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson. When they spar, when they leave the lame scripting behind and turn their penchant for improvised profanity and street lingo into beat down gold, the movie magically comes alive. Luckily, director Lee knows which side of the smack his movie's achievement is founded on. While the ending relies more on mechanics than four-letter wordplay, Mac and Jackson keep things from getting too manipulative.
Elsewhere, Lee is left trying to pry some purpose out of his uniformly inert cast -- and Isaac Hayes
doesn't count (the late Black Moses provides little more than a cameo here). Many of these ancillary characters feel like contrivances, from the uptight white agent who spends more time scolding than supporting his comeback kids, or the pair of trailer trash honeys who give the Flavor of Love gals a run for their STDs. Even the midpoint arrival of Sharon Leal as the daughter of the duo's ex-lover requires the actress to open her mouth and croon to avoid becoming a storyline doormat. Unlike Lee's last film, the underrated Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins
, Soul Men isn't a group effort. Without Mac and Jackson in the lead, we'd be left with an entertainment void that no expert ensemble could salvage.
Besides, when you're laughing as hard as you are during the first half of this film, nothing else really matters. And -- surprise! -- these guys can sing! During the film's frequent musical interludes, Mac and Jackson show a knack for selling a song that's infectious. The soundtrack, a combination of contemporary material and old soul/Stax classics, offers enough toe-tapping energy to light up a dozen derivative flicks, and you can tell our stars are having the time of their lives while up on the stage. With two-thirds of the film functioning properly, Soul Men can be forgiven for its occasional lapses. It's a fitting accolade to a fallen funnyman.
P.S. Stay for the closing credits. Lee uses outtakes and interview material to pay tribute to Mac and Isaac Hayes.