Paper-thin plot serves as a pretext for rousing gospel numbers in "The Fighting Temptations," which straddles styles and eras to get everybody's toes tapping. Helmer Jonathan Lynn ("My Cousin Vinny," "The Whole Nine Yards") has applied his fish-out-of-water conceit to the story of a failed Madison Avenue junior exec (Cuba Gooding Jr.) forced to lead a choir in Monte Carlo, Ga.

A correction was made to this review on Sept. 12, 2003.

Paper-thin plot serves as a pretext for rousing gospel numbers in “The Fighting Temptations,” which straddles styles and eras to get everybody’s toes tapping. Helmer Jonathan Lynn (“My Cousin Vinny,” “The Whole Nine Yards”) has applied his fish-out-of-water conceit to the story of a failed Madison Avenue junior exec (Cuba Gooding Jr.) forced to lead a choir in Monte Carlo, Ga. Rich commingling of singers and character actors and a nice star turn by multi-Grammy winner Beyonce Knowles (“Goldmember”) keep things rolling. Skedded to open wide Sept. 19, pic may score with middle-class, middle-aged black auds, with youth crossover pull from Beyonce.

Darrin (Gooding) is a soulless adman who almost makes it to the top by pitching malt liquor to the black masses. Fired when his boss finds out his resume is pure fiction, Darrin is called back to Georgia for his aunt’s funeral. Her will leaves him a tidy sum but only on the condition he take over the Beulah Baptist Church choir and enter a “Gospel Explosion” contest.

The choir is a mere shell of its former self, its glory days glimpsed in pic’s opening when Darrin’s mother served as soloist. But then Darrin’s mother was caught moonlighting as a nightclub chanteuse, and cast out of the choir by the reverend’s nasty holier-than-thou sister (LaTanya Richardson). Twenty years later, that sister is still a guiding force in the church.

The inexperienced Gooding, passing as a record producer, tries to assemble a patchwork chorus from a contentious assortment of churchgoers, drunks and shackled convicts. Auditioning no-talents provides some laughs and the occasion for scattershot mugging by Gooding, but it’s only when the real singers are ushered in that pic begin to percolate.

Melange of musical styles works fine, ranging from straight Gospel by the likes of Shirley Caesar to R&B retoolings by Melba Moore, Faith Evans, Eddie LeVert and Angie Stone, to a rap version of “Down by the Riverside” (now “Take It Down to the River”) in the hands of T-Bone and Montel Jordan, as well as Beyonce’s sexily secular rendition of “Fever.”

Broad mix of comic styles, on the other hand, doesn’t always proceed as smoothly, due in part to Gooding’s all-over-the-place perf. Granted he can dance, turn somersaults and jump around maniacally; in pic’s calmer moments, though, other actors must rush in to pick up the slack.

Apart from Gooding, strong ensemble cast also stumbles a bit among the diverse archetypes scripter Elizabeth Hunter has thrown together. Mike Epps, as a smooth-talking “booty” expert (he can distinguish regional variations), reps the present tense. Meanwhile, Steve Harvey, as a ubiquitous deejay, spans the generations. And while Richardson’s finely honed sanctimonious church sister seems timeless, there’s something rote in the way these different comic bits are mechanically trotted out when not more naturally linked through music.

For the most part, film’s generally strong score and mostly bouncy playlist trump the forced wholesomeness and utter predictability of the rest of the narrative. Fortunately, Gooding’s conversion to the true values of life is mercifully short and the numbers long.

Tech credits are good, with Paul Hirsch’s editing of musical segs particularly lively.

The Fighting Temptations

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of an MTV Films/Handprint Entertainment production. Produced by David Gale, Loretha Jones, Jeff Pollack. Executive producers, Van Toffler, Benny Medina. Co-producers, Susan Lewis, Momita Sengupta. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Screenplay, Elizabeth Hunter, Saladin K. Patterson, from a story by Hunter.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Affonso Beato; editor, Paul Hirsch; music, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, James "Big Jim" Wright; music supervisor, Spring Aspers; production designer, Victoria Paul; art direction, Cathrye Bangs; set decorator, Diana Stoughton; costume designers, Mary Jane Fort, Tracey A. White; sound (Dolby Digital DTS), Michael Hilkene; choreographers, Eartha D. Robinson, Shawnette Heard; associate producers, Tierre Turner, Matthew Rowland; assistant director, Rowland; casting, Robi Reed-Humes. Reviewed at the Loews Village 7, New York, Sept. 10, 2003. Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Darrin Fox - Cuba Gooding Jr. Lilly - Beyonce Knowles Bessie Cooley - Melba Moore Lucius - Mike Epps Rev. Shirley Caesar - Shirley Caesar Paulina Pritchett - LaTanya Richardson Miles Smoke - Steve Harvey Johnson - Montel Jordan Bee-Z Briggs - T-Bone

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