by HELEN GEIB
Soul Men stars Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac as the estranged surviving members of a once-popular Motown trio. It isn’t really a good movie, but it’s so eager to please that I can’t be too hard on it.
The film is a buddy comedy that plays out within the framework of a road movie. It doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a premise. Louis Hinds (Jackson) and Floyd Henderson (Mac) were the Real Deal of Marcus Cook and the Real Deal, a fictional Motown group loosely modeled on some of the real ones. Their glory days three decades and an acrimonious break-up behind them, Hinds and Henderson reluctantly reunite to play at a concert held in memoriam for Cook. The duo is in California, the memorial concert is in New York, and Hinds refuses to fly. Commence road trip filled with comic incidents and the gradual renewal of friendship.
Some road movies are about the journey. This road movie is about the casting. Jackson and Mac are great when the film gives them something to work with, which is about half the time. They’re still fun to watch even when they don’t have anything to work with, but they can only generate so many laughs in a vehicle that keeps running out of gas.
The good parts of Soul Men are the performances the Real Deal give during their trip and at the big concert and the comical-dramatic one-on-one scenes between Henderson and Hinds. With Mac and Jackson in the roles I wasn’t surprised to like the Henderson-Hinds off-stage comedy act, but the performance sequences are an unexpected treat and surprisingly, the most accomplished part of the film. The musical numbers are both joyful and wryly comical as Henderson and Hinds, outfitted in their vintage ‘seventies-era Real Deal costumes, perform their old hits while stepping through their vintage ‘seventies-era dance routines. While most of the credit must go to Jackson and Mac, who do their own singing and dancing, the musical numbers seem to have inspired everyone working on the film. The direction is livelier, the script is wittier, and the costuming is inspired.
The bad parts of Soul Men are the many lazily written and slackly directed comedy scenes. As a comedy, the movie works and falls flat in about equal measure. The film also disappoints as a road movie, having little sense of place and no gathering momentum. Most of the duo’s stops might as well be in Anyplace, USA as the named cities. Only Memphis survives the filmmakers disinterest in a small way, and that thanks only to the standing monuments of the city’s musical heritage.
I feel I should end by acknowledging that this film was made with a particular audience in mind, and I am not part of that audience. For one thing, I’m a white woman, and white women appear in the film only (and several times) as the butt of crude sex jokes. More importantly, I’m the wrong age. Story, characterizations, worldview, jokes: everything in Soul Men is middle-age specific. Most of the other people in the audience looked to be in the targeted demographic, and many of them laughed heartily all the way through the film.