Bernie Mac, who died in August, was a born movie star who only occasionally got the roles to make him shine brilliantly on the big screen, the way he did on the concert stage and on TV. In Mr. 3000, his depiction of a baseball player as a corrupted man-child was as moving as it was funny, and in Guess Who, he proved that he could express fiery emotions such as parental possessiveness with little more than a squint. He scores again in the ragged Soul Men, this time by sheer force of talent.
He and Samuel L. Jackson co-star as former members of a soul trio who drive cross-country to perform in an Apollo tribute concert to their former lead singer (John Legend), who died of a heart attack onstage in Europe. Neither Mac's Floyd Henderson nor Jackson's Louis Hinds actually liked Marcus Hayes, Legend's showy kleptomaniac. At the start of Soul Men, they're not too fond of each other, either. Hayes dropped them to go solo; they continued to perform as "the Real Deal," made one more album, then split up. They poisoned their relationship when they competed for a gal who never was a one-man woman.
In the form of a slapstick road movie, Soul Men tries to show how these fellows become soul mates once again. When it succeeds, it's because of Mac and Jackson, two performers who give their all even when the material is measly. (They should be called "the Commitments.")
Malcolm Lee, the director, made the amusing Eddie Griffin blaxploitation parody, Undercover Brother, but lets this musical dramedy ramble away from him. He wants to embed a ticking stop-watch into the suspense of whether the Real Deal will make it from Los Angeles to Harlem. But the setup is too far-fetched. The guys give themselves a mere four days on the highway, stopping to perform in tune-up engagements along the way.
Although Mac and Jackson are psyched to do the music proud, Lee doesn't take the time to show them coalescing and sizzling as an act. According to the press notes, both men performed their numbers without doubles.
But Lee almost never gives them the head-to-foot framing that would showcase how they got into a body-and-soul groove. He uses jarring cut-ins to display their flying feet. If these guys really did learn their moves so well, why, oh, why didn't Lee find a way to capture their skill and exuberance? You only get hints of it: once when they strike up an impromptu roadside routine to the Sam and Dave classic "I'm a Puppet"; later when they belt out Rufus Thomas' "Boogie Ain't Nuttin (But Getting' Down)" with a zest that gets even sour old Louis to do the two-step.
Near fatally for a film that wants to be Old School in its emphasis on character and experience, Lee rolls out slapstick shootouts and raucous sexual interludes like skits. This movie stoops to highlighting Viagra jokes the way college comedies do condom gags. Just one goes a long way. Lee also drags out the heartwarming episodes like specialty numbers. (Luckily, they focus on the fetching Sharon Leal; she brings her pleasing, feathery talent to the role of an undiscovered singer who may be one of the men's daughters). The late Isaac Hayes shows up for little more than a bow. Even the show-biz satire of fickle agent-manager "Little Ep" (for Epstein, played by Sean Hayes) and true-blue agency intern Philip Newman (Adam Herschman) comes straight out of the Sunshine Boys recycling bin.
What pushes the movie to the finish line is Mac's and Jackson's interplay. They start out as opposite characters played in opposite styles. Jackson's Louis is an angry, bitter middle-aged man whose humor borders on intimidation. Mac's Floyd tempers his own furies - he's a needy conciliator who just wants to get on with the rest of his life. As a wheedler, Mac can be as ingratiatingly risible as Bob Hope. Then you see that Floyd has all of Louis' passion and bellicosity. The difference is that Floyd's instinctive comic world-view makes him emotionally limber.
No one can glare like Jackson - except Mac, who turns the lights up whenever Floyd whets his own appetite talking about sex or a juicy steak. Soul Men isn't much of a movie, but it bubbles along and reaches its percolating high point at the very end. On a split screen during the closing credits, Lee intercuts a jovial Bernie Mac interview with outtakes and warm-up footage that spotlight the star's giant talent. It's a pleasure to see Mac turn on the high beams one more time.
(The Weinstein Co.) Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac. Directed by Malcolm Lee. Rated R for language and sexuality. Time 99 minutes. ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 STARS)