Thursday, November 13, 2008

Soul Men

There is an underlying sadness to “Soul Men.” As you watch it, you can’t help but think of it as a foul-mouthed but loving eulogy, the only way to send off a comedian. In fact, the plot itself seems eerily tailor-made to conjure up this connection; two estranged bandmates reunite to perform at a tribute for their deceased frontman. Unfortunately, the film never seems to move beyond the initial phase.

Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) were the backup singers of soul and funk legends The Real Deal before the usual load of drugs, women, and “creative differences” tore them apart. While their former leader Marcus Hooks (played in flashbacks by John Legend) enjoyed decades of fruitful solo successes, Floyd and Louis stagnated; Floyd started up a car wash, while Louis turned to theft to get by. Following Marcus’ death, a sleazy record producer (Sean Hayes) sees money to be made and organizes a reunion of the two surviving members.

After convincing Louis with the promise of money, Floyd throws his mate in the car and the pair head for the Apollo. Along the way they play a few gigs in bars to get back into the groove, pick up a few groupies, and duke it out over the memory of Odetta, a woman they both loved.

At a certain point, the two travel to Odetta’s home and discover her daughter who may or may not be Floyd’s child. Cleo (Sharon Leaf) joins them for arbitrary reasons, and soon the question of her fatherhood must be answered. Oh and she can sing her heart out, so she becomes their backup singer. Yes, the backup singers recruited a backup singer of their own.

Band reunion clichés not withstanding, what really makes this film dull is its terrible over-reliance on stereotypes. Cleo’s boyfriend is an abusive, illiterate, drug-peddling wannabe rapper, the two characters representing the record company are Jewish, and both represent a separate Jewish stereotype: the executive is money-grubbing and manipulative, while the intern sports a ‘fro and feels some sort of bond with the two black men. He also doubles as a desperate Jonah Hill look-alike, only without the wit.

Bernie Mac is typecast as a smooth talker who manages to get people to go along with his plans no matter how many times they see he’s just full of hot air, and Jackson- well, Jackson transcends typecasting. Is it possible to be your own stereotype?

The first two acts are promising, but never move past a sea of stereotypical jokes. But it is in the final third that the film goes terribly wrong. It essentially becomes a blaxploitation version of the Blues Brothers. An ex-con and his partner have to “get the band back together,” and somehow the cops get involved to the point that the whole country is after a pair of has-been musicians who nevertheless allow these musicians to play one last time. Really, the film mines so many stereotypes and rips off John Landis’ far superior movie so much that I’m amazed they didn’t call it “Blues Brothas” or something else equally as offensive to everyone.

“Soul Men” has all the components of a better movie: Mac, Jackson, the possibility for a scathing indictment of the record industry’s manipulation and greed. But it suffocates under the weight of its borderline racism and general unfunniness. All but a few minor jokes fail spectacularly, and the attempt at drama is the only truly funny thing in the movie. If you see the parallels between fiction and life, do not mistake them for poignancy; any message you could possibly glean from this will be one you brought in with you. During the credits an interview plays where Bernie Mac discusses how he prepared for roles and the seriousness with which he treated every one of them. It’s a simple, moving tribute that’s all the more tragic for being connected to this film.

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