Samuel L. Jackson’s wearying trash talk and truculence finally meets its match when Bernie Mac, a first-rate comic and a superb actor, out-cusses Jackson like a sailor trading insults with a school kid. This isn’t just low comedy, it’s what Pauline Kael’s review of Altman’s M*A*S*H called “the art of talking dirty” but taken to the weird heights of applying cultural justice.
In Soul Men, Mac and Jackson play Henderson and Hinds, former members of a ’60s soul-singing group The Real Deal who reunite for an oldies concert even though they’ve been apart for decades and can no longer stand each other’s company. It’s like an R&B retread of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys—but vaudevillians only spoke this salty backstage. Henderson and Hinds go at each other with a rage that their onstage smooth grooves and amorous entreaties put aside. It could reflect the prejudices endured when
their heydays ended. Their personal shouting matches resort to that black folkloric pastime “the dozens”—the pathetic assertion of verbal authority by momentarily humiliating one’s social equal.
It’s unjust that Sam Jackson has had a more prosperous film career playing the same superficial, surly character ad infinitum while Mac’s varied, deep-rooted, good humored portrayals in The Players Club, Life, Pride, Mr. 3000 and TV’s The Bernie Mac Show left his career marginalized. This meant that Jackson’s ludicrous, obstreperous stereotype became a Hollywood institution, appealing to racists of all shades. It feels good to see Mac cuss that goblin back to hell.
And Mac does it in character: After Henderson listens to Hinds’ revival plan and then throws him out of his hovel, Mac paces the dank hallway, anger rising up his spine into a storm of righteous vitriol. During the film’s comeback road story, Jackson again plays the badass who gets the duo out of scrapes with the law and various thugs (there’s a nice moment when the team soft-shoe dance on a dirt highway) but it’s already proven that Jackson doesn’t have woof-tickets to match Mac’s splendor or spleen.
Neither Mac nor Jackson have the vocal chops to satisfy nostalgia for a bygone style of pop music and this prevents Soul Men from successfully regenerating soul vibes. It was foolish to cast Jackson as a singer after the rhythm-less way he croaked the blues in Black Snake Moan. He’s worked on his phrasing for Soul Men, yet he and Mac barely carry a few tunes—like those non-singing stars did in Chicago. For the slickly choreographed soul-group routines, there’s fast, crafty editing and body doubles that attempt a Don-Ameche-in-Cocoon illusion.
After the pleasure of that verbal battle royale, Soul Men is the most disappointing tribute to black pop music since the OutKast movie Idlewild. Director Malcolm D. Lee repeats the same faux-nostalgia as his Roll Bounce. Evoking the legacies of The Impressions, McFadden and Whitehead, James and Bobby Purify, The Chi-Lites and Funkadelic (with John Legend impersonating a Curtis Mayfield type) is insufficient for an art form that still thrives—even if only on one’s iPod. A reunion with an estranged daughter (Sharon Leal), an episode with a bushy groupie (Jennifer Coolidge) rehashes clichés. A clash with hip-hop hooligans says nothing about cultural evolution beyond pointlessly satirizing Hustle and Flow. What stands in Soul Men is the spectacle of Mac and Jackson resorting to a verbal street fight. It’s a form of what black academics call “essentialism”—returning Mac and Jackson to the ghetto.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, Running Time: 103 min.
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