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"SOUL MEN"
(2008) (Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: Two backup singers are reunited and set off on a contentious cross-country trip to perform at a tribute concert for their recently departed former lead singer.
PLOT:
Once upon a time, Louis Hinds (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) and Floyd Henderson (BERNIE MAC) were backup singers for Marcus Hooks (JOHN LEGEND) in the soul trio, Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. After Marcus went on to a successful solo act, Louis and Floyd tried going out on their own, but after one hit record, they split up in 1979 for a variety of reasons, never to speak again.

That changes with the unexpected death of Marcus, resulting in a tribute concert being scheduled for him, and the powers that be want Louis and Floyd reunited, putting pressure on record label owner Danny Epstein (SEAN HAYES) to pull that off. Floyd is easy to convince, what with him being bored to death in retirement, but Louis wants nothing to do with that or him despite now living a life of squalor following a stint in prison.

But when Floyd tells his former partner they'll be paid handsomely, Louis reluctantly agrees, and the two set off on a cross-country road trip, given help -- at first via phone and then in person -- by Danny's gung-ho intern, Phillip (ADAM HERSCHMAN), who's their biggest fan.

With their destination the historic Apollo Theater, they make various stops to hone their resurrected act. Along the way, and needing money, they stop at the home of a woman they both loved and fought over in the past. Although they find that she's since died, they meet her daughter, Cleo (SHARON LEAL), who one of them might have fathered, as well as her good-for-nothing, drug-dealing, rapper wannabe boyfriend, Lester (AFFION CROCKETT). With her in tow, the two soul men continue on their trip, bickering and fighting as they proceed.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
In 1975, George Burns and Walter Matthau teamed up in the big screen version of Neal Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" to play former vaudevillians brought back together -- after a breakup a decade earlier following a long career together -- to appear on a TV special. Lots of abrasive bickering ensued.

Five years later, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd transferred their "Saturday Night Live" characters from the small to big screen in "The Blue Brothers," a raucous comedy musical where the two played blues performers trying to get their old band back together to play in a big benefit concert, all with the police and others trying to stop them from getting to the venue.

After another decade, Matthau then teamed up with Jack Lemmon to play the title characters in "Grumpy Old Men," yet another comedy where the abrasive chemistry and constant bickering actually sheltered an unspoken camaraderie and even, dare I say, platonic love between the old friends.

And since then, there have been countless comedies filled with profanity-based humor and/or road trip plots where the traveling characters learn a thing or two about themselves since, natch, it's the journey that's just as important and revealing as the final destination.

All of that is the obvious melded inspiration for "Soul Men," a decidedly adult comedy that's most notable for borrowing elements from those previous efforts as well as being one of the last films to feature the late comedic actor Bernie Mac, not to mention music legend Isaac Hayes (who appears playing himself).

The film's appeal -- as well as one's enjoyment of it -- lies squarely on the notion of watching Mac and Samuel L. Jackson playing Burns and Matthau, albeit -- but not surprisingly -- with more foul mouths, soul music rather than vaudeville, and plenty of jokes about getting old including the obligatory little blue pill and its obviously displayed physical magic.

Screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone give the two stars plenty of coarse and AARP inspired material with which to work, but little of it's smart, clever and/or imaginative, and it grows tiresome and repetitive fairly quickly (especially since Jackson's use of the "f" word combined with "mother" has become his signature stereotype through overuse in previous films).

They and director Malcolm D. Lee (who's responsible for the equally broadly played "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins") arrange for various slapstick style fights between the two, sexual situations with others (paging Jennifer Coolidge, paging Jennifer Coolidge), the revelation of a daughter from the past (Sharon Leal, the only refreshing thing in the film, at least when she sings), a supposedly comedic villain (Affion Crockett channeling the sort of lily-livered thug we've seen far too many times), and an overzealous intern with big hair (Adam Herschman trying to do the Jonah Hill thing).

Yet, like the other material, the best any of that offer are a few amusing moments, and that's a fairly generous assessment. Even the musical numbers -- ranging from brief performances in venues scattered along the road trip to the big production at the end -- aren't anything particularly noteworthy, but at least Jackson and Mac don't stink up the place doing their own vocal work.

Even so, I wanted something fun and infectious along the lines of what "Blues Brothers" delivered during its numbers -- alas, that doesn't occur. In fact, the best bits occur at the very beginning where we get the chronological crash course history lesson about the performers and how they mutated over the decades (including a funny bit seeing John Legend looking like George Clinton -- not the Vice President of the early 19th century, but the one with Parliament-Funkadelic).

Sadly, that's the zenith, and it certainly doesn't help that Mac's unexpected passing this year looms over the production (there's even a tribute of sorts to him during the end credits). While the same threatened to undermine "The Dark Knight" earlier this year, Heath Ledger's swan song was arguably the actor's best work. It's doubtful anyone will say the same about Mac here.

While I'm guessing the film will have its supporters, especially if they like the thought of bickering guys dropping the F-bomb geriatric style, it just feels too much like uninspired material recycled from far too many other films for me to enjoy it. "Soul Men" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 3, 2008 / Posted November 7, 2008


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