"Soul Food" serves up family melodrama-cum-comedy that's tasty and satisfying, if not particularly profound or original. Distinguished by some very funny individual scenes and strong ensemble work from an extremely appealing and proficient cast, this Fox release, which focuses on the romantic tribulations of three sisters as their widowed mother declines into a fatal illness, offers African-American viewers the sort of straightforward genre piece that Hollywood used to craft by the dozen for white auds.

Soul Food” serves up family melodrama-cum-comedy that’s tasty and satisfying, if not particularly profound or original. Distinguished by some very funny individual scenes and strong ensemble work from an extremely appealing and proficient cast, this Fox release, which focuses on the romantic tribulations of three sisters as their widowed mother declines into a fatal illness, offers African-American viewers the sort of straightforward genre piece that Hollywood used to craft by the dozen for white auds. While perhaps lacking some requisites of “Waiting to Exhale”-style crossover pull, this antic, warmhearted tribute to family values in changing times should simmer nicely in urban situations; ancillary returns also look appetizing.

Writer-director George Tillman Jr. gives an autobiographical air to his second feature (following “Scenes for the Soul”), which is set in his native Midwest. Though the action looks contemporary, it is presented as if a distant memory of its young narrator, Ahmad (Brandon Hammond). The son of Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), the second of pic’s central trio of sisters, Ahmad enjoys a particularly close relationship with his grandmother, Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall), a much-loved matriarch whose Sunday dinners are the ritual that has anchored her clan for decades.

Dinner time, though, grows troubled thanks to the domestic perplexities of the elder and younger sisters. Teri (Vanessa L. Williams) is a successful attorney who’s far more committed to her job than is her husband, Miles (Michael Beach), who dreams of trading the law office for a career in music. Their relationship gets an additional strain with the arrival of cousin Faith (Gina Ravera), whose attractions are sufficient to turn the head of Miles. Bird (Nia Long), the youngest sister, owns her own beauty shop and has just married Lem (Mekhi Phifer), an ex-con who wants to go straight but discovers that his criminal record makes finding a job hard. Bird only makes that bad situation worse, however, when she appeals for help from an ex-boyfriend (Mel Jackson) who still has eyes for her.

These difficulties are exacerbated when Mother Joe, the family’s Rock of Gibraltar, is hospitalized with a life-threatening illness. Her absence challenges Ahmad to scheme up a way to reunite the increasingly fragmented family around the Sunday dinner table.

Pic’s main weakness, not a serious one overall, is that most of its length is spent simply bouncing back and forth between three melodramatic stories that are treated in a superficial, if agreeably entertaining, fashion. Greater dramatic unity and a gradual deepening of thematic concerns would have made for a stronger narrative arc as well as yielding a more powerful emotional payoff.

All the same, Tillman proves skillful in the writing and delivery of numerous scenes of broad-stroke comedy and family interaction, all of which are founded on an affectionate feel for familial relations that is one of the film’s strong suits.

Helmer also gets winning perfs from his large cast. While this is so much a well-honed ensemble piece that it may be untoward to single out individual contributions, young Hammond makes a strong impression with his sharp, sympathetic work as Ahmad.

Pic’s execution is polished and thoroughly pro, with an aural sheen provided by a soundtrack reflecting the musical expertise of exec producer Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds. Paul Elliott’s warm, textured lensing is an additional plus.

Soul Food

Production

A 20th Century Fox release from Fox 2000 Pictures of an Edmonds Entertainment production. Produced by Tracey E. Edmonds, Robert Teitel. Executive producer, Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds. Co-producer, Michael McQuarn. Directed, written by George Tillman Jr.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Paul Elliott; editor, John Carter; music, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman; production design, Maxine Shepard; art direction, Cydney M. Harris; set decoration, Joe Bristol; costume design, Salvador Perez; sound, David Obermeyer; assistant director, Randy Fletcher; casting, Robi Reed-Humes. Reviewed at the Cinema 1, N.Y., Sept. 17, 1997. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Teri - Vanessa L. Williams
Maxine - Vivica A. Fox
Bird - Nia Long
Miles - Michael Beach
Lem - Mekhi Phifer
Ahmad - Brandon Hammond
Kenny - Jeffrey D. Sams
Faith - Gina Ravera
Mother Joe - Irma P. Hall
Reverend Williams - Carl Wright
Simuel - Mel Jackson
Kelly - Morgan Mechelle Smith
Uncle Pete - John M. Watson Sr.

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