With Soul Men, fans of the late Bernie Mac will get a familiarly amusing dose from one of the Original Kings of Comedy in one of his last feature-film appearances. While Mac’s on track, the script runs off the rails in its musical journey to the 1970s, when polyester leisure suits were the height of funky, and Don Cornelius said goodbye to his audience every week with a wish for “love, peace, and soul.”
In Soul Men, Mac and Samuel L. Jackson play a couple of washed-up backup singers who reunite for a farewell performance after their former bandleader passes away. The trio, Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, was once considered one of the biggest R&B acts in the world (You’ll recognize their hit “I’m Your Puppet,” which was actually first recorded by Bobby and James Purify in 1966), but when Hooks (John Legend) decided to start a solo career, Floyd Henderson (Mac) and Louis Hinds (Jackson) were left to harmonize as a duo.
After releasing one record, the Real Deal split up, citing creative differences, and slowly began to slip into musical obsurity. When a VH1 executive calls up Floyd, who has supplemented his royalty checks as the owner of a bikini car wash, to see if he’d like to participate in the reunion at the Apollo Theater, he sees an opportunity for a comeback. Louis, however, is comfortable living like a slob and isn’t interested in reliving the glory days. He can’t remember anything in the period from “Watergate to when the space shuttle blew up,” anyway. But when Floyd mentions getting a paycheck for their performance, Louis isn’t in a position to reject the offer, especially since he lost the rights to his music years ago in a poker game.
From here, Soul Men becomes a typical road-trip movie, taking the grouchy odd couple from Memphis to New York City in a lime-green El Dorado. Mac and Jackson do have great chemistry together onstage (offstage, “motherfucker,” the insult most readily tossed between them, loses its bluster after numerous repeats), but screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (their last collaboration was on the horrendous 2005 Tommy Lee Jones comedy Man of the House) aim for cheap laughs instead of effectively using the strongest of their assets: the soul-music genre. Hardly anything culturally relevant to the era is even mentioned. Even Black Moses himself, the late Isaac Hayes, doesn’t make his cameo until the film’s waning moments.
Instead, Ramsey and Stone rely on jokes about rectal exams, Viagra, and toothless oral sex, and fail to build on subplots featuring characters that seem to be yanked right out of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Still, it’s not a far stretch from Mac’s normal film offerings, which were never as funny as his raw stand-up or his five memorable seasons on television. •