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No Soul Food, Just Mac and Lots of Cheese

MOVIE REVIEW
Soul Men (2008)

SM-05387
Doug Hyun/Dimension Films

The development of “Soul Men” as outlined in its press kit instructively illustrates the wrong way to go about making a movie. The project originated not out of the organic creative need of screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone to tell the story at hand. Rather, it began with producers Steve Greener and David T. Friendly, who, according to the latter, had nothing but “the notion of these two guys (Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac) in a movie.” That led to a meeting with the writers, at which “either Rob or Matt said, 'What if Sam and Bernie were back-up singers like the Pips? The leader of the group has died and they have to go to New York to do a tribute concert.' And I said, 'That’s it. That’s a movie.' ”

Actually, that’s not a movie: It’s a concept masquerading as one. In classic Hollywood tradition, “Soul Men” was created over private conversations and lunchtime pitch meetings. Pair up famous actors, give them the comic hook of being washed-up back-up singers and send them on a road trip. Pile on some bits and pieces of other formulas and you’re left with a film that’s been calculated to death. It is, then, a testament to the terrific charisma of the stars that the movie remains consistently watchable and periodically entertaining even as the storytelling gears churn loudly.

Mr. Jackson plays Louis and Mr. Mac plays Floyd, once the supporting act in a popular soul group cast out by their rising star lead singer Marcus Hooks (John Legend) and into a nondescript, fame-free existence. When they’re reunited to play at a memorial concert for Marcus after nearly two decades of not speaking, the aforementioned road trip to the show begins. It comes complete with wistful journeys down memory lane, some slapstick fighting, a comic adventure with the opposite sex, and just the slightest sense of the characters confronting their own mortality.

The actors clearly relish playing off one another. They bring a lot of spirit and energy to their parts and effortlessly express the characters’ complicated relationship. They bicker and bond convincingly, and do far more than the screenplay in viscerally conveying the sense of men trying to come to terms with their tumultuous shared history. By sheer force of personality, they make an impression; and they adeptly handle their on-camera performances of Stax soul numbers like “Do Your Thing.” The picture serves as a fitting final tribute to Mr. Mac’s talents and it movingly eulogizes him with a documentary over the end credits. Sadly, the pedestrian direction of Malcolm Lee and a screenplay comprised of one superfluous, distracting scenario after another collectively keep the film from doing Mr. Mac justice.

SOUL MEN

Opens on Nov. 7 in the United States.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee; written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone; director of photography, Matt Leonetti; edited by John Carter; choreography by Jamal Sims; production designer, Richard Hoover; produced by David T. Friendly, Charles Castaldi and Steve Greener; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Samuel L. Jackson (Louis Hinds), Bernie Mac (Floyd Henderson), Sharon Leal (Cleo Whitfield), Sean Hayes (Danny Epstein), Jennifer Coolidge (Rosalee), John Legend (Marcus Hooks) and Isaac Hayes (himself).

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