What could be written off as an African-American update of “The Sunshine Boys” becomes more poignant due to the deaths of Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes (who appears briefly as himself) and a closing-credit tribute incorporating an interview with Mac that is, frankly, better than the movie that precedes it. Still, there’s a nice chemistry between Mac and Samuel L. Jackson in this latest variant of the road movie, which contains comedic elements but actually works better as a drama. Sentiment regarding Mac will largely determine turnout, though Jackson fans should savor seeing his lighter side unleashed.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (“Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins”) from a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone that’s a few rest stops short of a fully mapped-out trip, the opening offers a promising rundown of the main characters’ backstory. Louis (Jackson) and Floyd (Mac) were 1970s backup singers to smooth lead man Marcus Hooks (a cameo by singer John Legend) before he split to go solo. The pair went on as a duo for a while before parting over a woman.
Decades later, Floyd is having a difficult time adjusting to retirement after running a successful car wash. Louis, meanwhile, has hit the skids, serving prison time and living in relative squalor. So when Marcus’ death offers an opportunity to sing together again at the Apollo Theater in New York, they grudgingly reunite — though Louis insists they drive from Los Angeles, seemingly less out of fear of flying than apprehension about running out of plot in less than 45 minutes.
A series of episodic interludes in states like Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma ensues, allowing the two old pals plenty of time to snipe at each other, relive past grievances and even meet the beautiful Cleo (Sharon Leal, “Dreamgirls”), a young woman who was apparently conceived right around the time Floyd broke up with her mother. Fortunately, this also affords them an opportunity to work on their rusty Temptations-type act and engage in plenty of free-flowing banter, adding an entirely new array of phrases for those fond of Jackson’s near-unparalleled gift for explosive streams of expletives.
Beyond the language, there are some pretty hard-R scenes of sex, nudity and Viagra (an almost obligatory gag these days whenever the stars are over 50), so bringing the kids isn’t a terrific idea. That raunchiness clashes, however, with the tone of the overly broad supporting characters, including a too-eager intern (Adam Herschman) and Cleo’s hapless, gun-toting boyfriend (Affion Crockett).
The pic does a considerably better job capturing the razzmatazz of ‘70s soul groups, from the garish outfits to the choreographed dance steps and the first-rate soundtrack. Mac and Jackson also appear to be having a ball doing the musical numbers, which are infectious and, given the comic’s death, warming — although their energetic efforts can’t fully overcome the thinness of the material.
As for that closing sequence, Mac is shown in various outtakes and off-the-cuff moments cracking up the crew or a crowd of extras and speaking about how much he appreciates his career, saying that he’s determined to “cherish each doggone moment.”
“Soul Men” is by no means a movie to cherish, but along its bumpy road, it manages to hit just enough of the right notes to serve as a respectable coda to Mac’s legacy.