Although its opening scenes suggest a budget-challenged kickoff for a comic-book movie franchise, “96 Souls” turns out to be something even less engaging — a flavorless and fuzzy-headed melodrama about a scientist who accidentally develops the ability to read minds, and his attempts to aid a homeless musician who sounds like the African-American comic relief in some badly dated Hollywood farce from the ’40s. It’s hard not to wince whenever the latter character, played by Toyin Moses with far more spunk than the role deserves, asks the scientist about “Al Gore-isms” – algorithms, get it? — and when she defends her certainty by insisting “I knows in my bones.” But, really, Moses seems scarcely more cartoonish than her co-stars, all of whom have been encouraged by writer-director Stanley Jacobs to deliver their dialogue in the overemphatic fashion of a grade-school teacher imparting information to a class of slow-learners.
Grinnell Morris is the most didactic of the bunch as Jack Sutree, a workaholic biomedical researcher at a major metropolitan university. As a result of a lab accident during his olfactory experiments, he gains the power to “see” odors and, more important, visualize the innermost thoughts of people in his orbit. Some of this mind reading is played for laughs, particularly when Sutree tests his abilities by assisting trial consultants in their evaluation of potential jurors. Unfortunately, the intentionally funny scenes are far outnumbered by those in which the hilarity is unintentional.
Sutree wants to use his powers for the forces of good, and offers to help the aforementioned homeless musician — named, no kidding, Bazemint Tape — locate her long-missing, mentally disturbed mother. But Big Pharma bigwig Clayton Redfield (Paul Statman), who underwrites much of the research at Sutree’s university, wants to exploit the formula that has enabled Sutree to see all that he can see. You don’t need to be a mind reader to immediately identify Redfield as the villain of the piece: Right from the start, Statman does everything but sprout horns and twirl a pitchfork to indicate he is a Note of Discord.
“96 Souls” has the flat, brightly lit look of a second-rate basic-cable police procedural, and the sluggish pace of a movie directed by a filmmaker much too fond of his own discursive screenplay. While Surtee seeks to control his newly expanded conscious, the narrative grinds to halt to allow for an interminable discussion about the metaphysical properties of an onion. (I’m not making that up.) At this point, and quite a few other points in “96 Souls,” home viewers will be tempted to hit the fast-forward button; theatergoers will consider an excursion to the concessions counter.