“Soul Men”
At the Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of MGM/TWC

1.5 stars

First, the relative good news about “Soul Men.” The film has a handful of poppy musical numbers, and the last two performances by Floyd Henderson (the late Bernie Mac, TV’s “The Bernie Mac Show”) and Louis Hinds (the omnipresent Samuel L. Jackson) as old-school R&B band The Real Deal hit all the right notes when capturing the essence of ’70s soul music.

Mac and Jackson, playing former backup singers to a recently deceased Motown-era legend, do their own singing in the film (accompanied by Sharon Leal from “This Christmas”). They cover Buddy Guy’s “Do Your Thing” plus original composition “A Walk in the Park” (download it for free from the movie’s website). They sound fantastic and display a real talent for showmanship, busting out slick, if uninspired, dance moves and having a good time all around.

These two scenes total less than ten minutes of the film. Set them aside, and “Soul Men” becomes one wholly unfunny mess of a movie. The plot is standard road-trip fare, as Henderson and Hinds drive cross-country to the prestigious Apollo Theater to perform at a tribute concert for their former lead singer. (Did none of the concert’s organizers bother to arrange transportation for their biggest act?)

Neither the unwieldy direction by Spike Lee’s cousin Malcolm D. Lee (“Undercover Brother”) nor the collaborative patchwork script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (“Man of the House”) manage to utilize the charisma of the lead actors in the slightest. Mac and Jackson are funny and instantly likeable, but they need to do more to provoke laughter than just swear at each other for two hours.

The film fails in all its attempts at humor. Mac has two incredibly disturbing sex scenes meant to be played as physical comedy. There’s a running gag (really more like a limping one) that his character doesn’t know how to handle a firearm, so it always goes off when he holds it. Funny? No. All this, plus a token white-boy character named Phillip (Adam Herschman, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry”) with a white-boy afro who says white-boy things like “homie” and even dons a pair of tightie-whities at one point.

“Soul Men” is one of the last films Bernie Mac completed before his death. To say he deserved better than a mediocre “Blues Brothers” rip-off would be an understatement for the man who once hysterically proclaimed “I’m gonna bust your head until the white meat shows” to his TV son in “The Bernie Mac Show.” A touching tribute to him is played over the end credits, underscored by a groovy, chilling rendition of “Never Can Say Goodbye” by bona-fide soul legend Isaac Hayes.

Hayes, who died a day after Mac, also makes a cameo in the film, but his image remains intact — mostly because he isn’t given anything interesting to do. However, it’s a mystery as to why the amazing Sam & Dave hit “Soul Man” (cowritten by Hayes) isn’t played or even mentioned at all, considering it’s the clear inspiration for the movie’s title. But then again, a film of this meager quality would’ve been a very poor fit for one of the greatest songs ever written.

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