As a film tribute and final farewell to the work of late comic actor Bernie Mac, Soul Men really shows just what an energetic and funny performer he really could be. He puts so much into the film, and gets a lot of laughs here. It certainly helps that he's been teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson, and that the two have such wonderful chemistry together. They make the somewhat tired buddy road trip comedy premise work. Fortunately, there's more than the lead stars to the film's appeal. Soul Men offers up some genuine laughs, and even a bit of heart, which I wish was explored just a little more.
The premise of the film is certainly nothing new, where two former friends with many differences between them are forced to come together and confront their old insecurities and pent-up frustrations with each other. 40 years ago, Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) were part of a successful Motown singing trio called Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. Lead singer Marcus (John Legend) continued on with a successful solo career, while Floyd and Louis basically faded into obscurity. Floyd got rich running a car dealership, but is unhappy after many failed marriages and is now "waiting out the clock" in a retirement community. Louis spent time in prison after a botched bank robbery attempt, and has now pretty much shut out the rest of the world. The two are forced to reunite when Marcus Hooks dies of a heart attack, and they are asked to perform at a memorial concert being held at the Apollo theater. As the two drive cross country from L.A. to New York, old emotional wounds between the two are opened as they try to sort out what went wrong with their lives, and who was to blame. Along the way, they experience the usual misadventures one finds in a road trip comedy (It's an unwritten law that the heroes must experience car trouble in the middle of what appears to be a desert area in a road trip movie.), and pick up a young woman named Cleo (Sharon Leal) who may or may not be the daughter of one of the two men, since her mother was a woman they both loved.
While Soul Men doesn't attempt to rewrite the rules of its own genre, it is gifted with a sharply comic script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (2005's Man of the House), as well as a tight pace that constantly keeps things moving. The script and the direction by Malcolm D. Lee (who recovers nicely here after directing the lame Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins back in February) keep the energy level of the movie high, and never lets it sag. However, most of this energy are provided by the two lead stars, who not only are a great team in this film, but manage to create great individual characters. Mac's Floyd is a man who doesn't want to slip quietly into obscurity. His nephew recently took over his car business, and despite what he's told, he knows he's been sent to the retirement community where he lives to generally be forgotten. This memorial and reunion concert is one last chance to do what he loves and be appreciated for it. Jackson's Louis would probably be happy if the world forgot about him, and has pretty much increased his efforts to make sure it does. Despite their constant comedic bantering, there is a lot of sadness behind both men - One which is probably easy to relate to when someone gets to be the age of the characters.
The humor in this movie is usually of the broad and raunchy variety. I don't know if it holds the record for the most four letter words used in rapid succession, but it certainly shoots for the goal. The two characters seem to use "F-bombs" as if they were conversation starters. There is also quite a bit of sexual humor, which is actually very funny here. When the movie started bringing up Viagra, I grew worried that it was going to take the easy way out. Fortunately, the script is a little bit better than that, and creates some genuinely funny situations, such as when Floyd has an encounter with a woman (Jennifer Coolidge) who gives him her version of a "velveteen rub". Despite the frequently broad humor, the movie never offends, because it knows just how far it is supposed to go, and when to pull back. It also has some genuinely sweet moments throughout the movie, such as the scene when Floyd and Louis are stranded while trying to fix their car and they begin to bond for the first time in years while listening to Marvin Gaye's "I'm Your Puppet". The introduction of the third member of the road trip, Cleo, also brings a lot of humanity to the proceedings, and I only wish her character and her relationship with the men was developed more.
I greatly enjoyed Soul Men when it was focusing on Floyd and Louis, and was giving me a lot of time to enjoy the fine performances provided by Mac and Jackson. (Not only is this one of Bernie Mac's final performances, it's probably the best one.) When the movie cuts away from them, it loses some of its charm. The nerdy obsessed fan whom the concert promoter sends to help the two reach the Apollo theater probably could have been written out of the script without any consequence. There's also a pointless subplot involving a gangster rapper who abuses Cleo before Floyd and Louis take her away from him, and how he follows after them cross country trying to kill them. It never builds to anything, and is completely unnecessary. The two lead characters bring more than enough drama and tension to the film, it doesn't need car chases and killer thugs gunning at them. Fortunately, the movie never allows itself to dwell too long on the stuff that doesn't work, and never lets it dominate the central focus of the two leads.
The movie ends on a bittersweet note, with a touching video tribute to Bernie Mac during the closing credits, which includes some improvised comedy routines he did for the cast and crew during filming, and also some interviews with him talking about his career. The tribute also covers the great music performer, Isaac Hayes, who has a small role in the movie as himself and died exactly one day after Mac did. Although the filmmakers obviously had no idea it would happen while they were making the movie, the tribute to the men fits the theme of the film itself. Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes were two men who did what they loved right up to the end of their lives, and this film is a fitting tribute to their talents.
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