Soul Men ends with a touching extended shout-out to Bernie Mac, who died three months before the film’s release. But really, the entire thing is a tribute reel to Mac. That it isn’t a very good movie is almost beside the point. Mac’s profane, bug-eyed antics, typically relegated to supporting roles, take center stage here for nearly two hours. It’s probably too much: his best role, for my money, was his fifteen minutes of screentime in Bad Santa. But as something to remember him by, it’s pretty much perfect. If you were a fan of the guy, you should probably ignore the grade on this review and go.
In character, Mac is not merely angry. He is outraged. He tries to express it with words, but his words can’t contain him. His rants explode out of the confines of coherence. Making sense is for the timid. He curses a lot — “motherfucker” is a favorite — but he does it for punctuation rather than impact. His delivery is impact enough. At one point in Soul Men, he sustains his invective for so long that when he walks off camera, the camera stays on but doesn’t bother to follow him.
Soul Men is a Grumpy Old Men-like affair pairing Mac with Samuel L. Jackson, who is no slouch when it comes to uncontrolled anger, either. They play a pair of soul legends who reunite after the their band leader — who ditched them decades ago for a solo career — kicks it. They spend most of the first half of the film mad at each other, and they’re so good at it that their characters’ eventual reconciliation comes as a disappointment. Nothing in the film’s supposedly sweet later sections approaches approaches the awesomeness of the exchange I quote at the top of the page. That time Jackson is the one doing the cussing, and his timing is sublime.
Unfortunately, the movie lets its stars — and its supporting cast — down too often. I got excited when the great Jennifer Coolidge showed up in a bit role, but this may be the first time in history that Coolidge didn’t draw so much as a smile. Comedian Affion Crockett gives an impressively committed performance as a villain of sorts, but the film doesn’t seem to realize how seriously loathsome — and therefore not very funny — his character really is. We get the sense that though its cast understands comedy, Soul Men is wandering around in the dark.
The movie was directed by Malcolm D. Lee, whom I thought of as a promising newcomer after the flawed but endearing Undercover Brother and the lovely Roll Bounce. After Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and now this, I think he should stay away from broad comedy. He doesn’t have a feel for it. There’s a scene toward the end of Soul Men involving its protagonists unexpectedly emerging onto the Apollo stage from a coffin — something that could have been very funny if the film had any grace of rhythm. But instead the moment goes down like a lead balloon.
Soul Men doesn’t get very far on its own merits: much of it is a maudlin, unremarkable mess. I admit that had we not lost Mac, this review would be far less charitable. His death doesn’t make Soul Men any better, but it may make it worth seeing. He is a force of nature, as much here as anywhere — and he should be remembered.