In an ideal world, you'd turn the camera on Bernie Mac and just let him do his thing, unhampered by the vagaries of script and plot, of character development and narrative cohesion. The Mac Man was at his best when he could riff, all bug-eyes and righteous apoplexy, whipping himself into a crescendo of carefully orchestrated fury, punctuated by bursts of his signature lament: "Summamabitch!"
This is, of course, a far from idyllic planet; the wildly talented Mac is gone, taken out by a particularly virulent strain of pneumonia at the too-young age of 50. Leaving us with the far-from-idyllic Soul Men, which should have been so, so, so much better than the sum of its parts.
Which is too bad, because Soul Men's parts are good: It pairs Mac with Samuel L. Jackson—another master of calibrated rage—as Floyd Henderson and Louis Hinds, a duo of washed-up '70s soul singers in search of redemption. It's got director Malcolm D. Lee, cousin of Spike, who knows how to bring the silly. (Remember Undercover Brother?) It's got moments of pee-in-your-pants funny. (Who knew pairing Best in Show veteran Jennifer Coolidge with Mac could yield such comedic gold?)
It's got some inspired cameo appearances: John Legend making musical mockery of Prince and George Clinton; '70s-era porn star Vanessa del Rio; singer Millie Jackson, the queen of raunch, and the late, great Isaac Hayes.
But what it doesn't have is a good script. And all the summamabitches in the world can't compensate for what amounts to a played-out road movie. About 15 minutes into the movie, you figure out that Louis and Floyd will fight their way cross-country. Their car will break down somewhere in the middle of the desert. They'll run afoul of both the law and gun-toting rednecks. Midway through the movie, they'll confront their past and get all serious and shit. And by the end, in the midst of their bickering, they'll discover that friendship truly does conquer all. Cue the band and flash-forward to the big finale concert at the famed Apollo Theater. Fadeout. The end.
We're not giving anything away, because if you do choose to see Soul Men, you're not going for the narrative arc. So pay no mind to the director behind the curtain, madly tossing out clichés in the hopes that you won't realize that the plot is held together with safety pins and Krazy Glue. To see Soul Men is to lower your expectations, to ignore the cringe-inducing attempts at pathos. (Is the beauteous Cleo Louis' daughter—or Floyd's? Will she forgive them for abandoning their mother, whom they were both married to?)
Ignore the bumps along the way and enjoy the ride: the spectacle of Mac and Jackson, doing what they do. The two have such an easy chemistry that Lee would have been better off just letting them improv their way from Los Angeles to Memphis to New York. And Soul Men starts out with such promise. We are introduced to Floyd and Louis through faux newsreel footage, First as the lesser parts of a Memphis singing trio, "Marcus Hooks and The Real Deal." Marcus, played by John Legend, decides to break out for a solo gig and blows up, big, leaving his band mates to fend for themselves. "The Real Deal" eventually breaks up. Louis turns to a life of crime. Floyd gets rich with a chain of carwashes until he's forced into a grumpy, Viagra-fueled retirement. (Why is it that Mac always played men much older than he really was?)
When Marcus dies, they're invited to perform at a VH1 special of his funeral. Visions of a comeback dancing in his head, Floyd strong-arms Louis into making the trek east. Occasional moments of high hilarity ensue: Louis line-dancing at a country-western club in Texas. Floyd and his dentally challenged one-night stand (with the aforementioned Coolidge). "Lester the Court Jester," a savagely satirical sendup of crunk and Southern-fried rappers.
You don't think of either Mac or Jackson as singers—and they're not—but they bring a certain sweet credulity to their singing roles, speak-singing their lyrics and dancing with surprising grace and agility. (Though Mac looks seriously ill through much of the movie, uncharacteristically thin and faded. He died three months ago, but he's still got a number of other films in the can.) It's worth struggling through the film's flaws just to see the two of them, stranded on the side of the road, singing "I'm Your Puppet," working through their choreography, and working through their issues.
Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.