Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Samuel L. Jackson and the late comedian Bernie Mac team up as blues singers in “Undercover Brother” director Malcolm D. Lee’s new movie “Soul Men” (** out of ****), a raunchy, R-rated, musical comedy that co-stars late rhythm & blues legend Isaac Hayes. The camaraderie between the cantankerous Jackson and the comedic Mac surpasses their half-witted shenanigans as they embark on a cross-country trip to pay tribute to a dead lead singer with whom they once shared the limelight. Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone's episodic script trots out all the obligatory jokes about Viagra, rectal exams, and infidelity. Our heroes emerge from obscurity and find redemption and success where they least expected. Ironically, “Soul Men” fares better as a drama about two washed-up blues brothers struggling to make a comeback than as a comedy of errors. Although neither Jackson nor Mac can tote a tune in a bucket, they conjure up more than enough charisma to compensate for their lack of vocal talent. Basically, “Soul Men” boils down to an African-American spin on “The Sunshine Boys” meet “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” with a hefty part of the plot taking place in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Soul Men” unfolds like a VH-1 music documentary as we learn about the soul trio Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. These fellas start out warbling on Memphis street corners and wind up in the big time. Eventually, Marcus (Johnny Legend, a.k.a. John Stephens) abandons his back-up singers, Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”) and Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac of “Transformers”), to pursue a solo career. Marcus finds fame, but our heroes—the Real Deal—burn out as one-hit wonders. Creative differences drive them apart in 1979 and they go their separate ways. Floyd reaps greater monetary fame promoting an L.A. car wash with bikini-clad babes soaping up bumpers, while Louis botches a bank robbery and serves time in prison.

“Soul Men” shifts from the past to the present. Floyd finds himself put out to pasture in a luxurious retirement village by his goofy son Duane (Mike Epps of “Next Friday”) who has taken over his father’s business. Predictably, Floyd gets bored playing golf and has to gobble Viagra galore to keep up with a voluptuous neighbor who wants his body more than his soul. Floyd suffers from insomnia. One night while watching television, he learns that Marcus has died during a concert performance in Stockholm. No sooner does Floyd hear about this tragedy than record label owner Danny Epstein (Sean Hayes of “The Bucket List”) rings him up. Epstein wants Floyd and Louis to perform at Marcus’ tribute at the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Naturally, Floyd leaps at the offer and looks up Louis.

Louis, on the other hand, doesn’t jump at the offer. Out on parole, Louis toils as a mechanic and lives in hopeless squalor. After a tough day at the garage, Louis comes home to his depressing apartment to find Floyd rummaging through his things. Before Floyd can say something, Louis decks him with a right cross to the jaw that crumples Floyd to the floor. When he recovers, Floyd tries to reason with Louis and begs him to appear at the Apollo so that he can reboot their blues singing career. Louis flatly refuses until Floyd tells him that they can pick up an easy twenty grand. Shrewd, cynical Louis reluctantly agrees to join Floyd, but only if Floyd gives Louis sixty per cent of the split and they drive across country rather than fly.

A frustrated Floyd caves in to Louis’ demands. They hit the road in a lime-green Cadillac and do a series of one-night performances at motel lounges across Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma. Things get complicated along the way when they try to visit an old girlfriend, discover that she is dead, and meet her beautiful daughter, Cleo (Sharon Leal of “Dreamgirls”), who contends with an abusive boyfriend. Louis and Floyd rescue her from the boyfriend, Lester (Affion Crockett of “Compton Cowboy”), and she accompanies them. She finds her voice as a blues singer on the road. When our heroes chill in Memphis, local sensation Isaac Hayes offers Cleo a contract. While things soar from Cleo, everything goes south for our protagonists. Louis and Floyd get into trouble, end up in jail, and then Floyd pulls a real boner. The Memphis Police release Floyd, but they hold Louis since he has violated his parole. Floyd realizes he cannot sing solo at the Apollo, so he breaks his old partner out of jail. The surveillance camera footage makes the news. Now, our heroes are the object of a nation-wide manhunt, so when they arrive in Harlem, they have to dodge the N.Y.P.D.

Predictably, everything works out. “Soul Men” qualifies as neither a great movie nor a good movie, more like a minor movie. However, you cannot take your eyes off either Samuel L. Jackson or Bernie Mac when they do their routines. They spend most of the film’s 100 minute running time hurling hardcore expletives at each other. Depending on your sense of humor, you'll either hurt yourself laughing when they badmouth each other or you will hang your head in despair. Jackson and Mac are fun to watch, especially when they don their flashy outfits and perform choreographed dance numbers. Isaac Hayes pretty much plays himself in a subplot. Bernie Mac deserved a better film than “Soul Men” to conclude his career. Spike Lee's younger brother director Malcolm D. Lee wraps up the film with a tribute to Mac’s career.

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