Good taste and bad taste wrestle to a split decision in Soul Men, an ultimately irresistable comedy from director Malcolm D. Lee. The bad comes in the form of a hacky plot and some immoderate comic choices, but the good includes pairing Samuel L. Jackson with Bernie Mac and letting them go at each other and hits from the Stax library. Try not to smile as these guys profanely insult each other or as they boogie, and try not to get misty eyed watching Mac have the time of his life--for the last time--on film.
Mac and co-star Isaac Hayes both passed away before the release of Soul Men, but the film stands as a warm-hearted tribute (complete with end-credit outtakes and interviews). Bygone Memphis-bred R&B act Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal returns to the public eye when Hooks, long a beloved solo artist, passes away (in a "special appearance," John Legend plays Hooks). His backup singers, The Real Deal, have been broken up since 1979: Floyd Henderson (Mac) is troubleshooting a nephew (Mike Epps) who wants to put him out to pasture in the Valley. Louis Hinds (Jackson), an ex-con living in squalor, proves somewhat less interested in teaming up for a reunion performance at Hooks' VH1-televised memorial. "I ain't tryin' to make no comeback. I'm gone, and I want to stay gone," he insists. But the promise of money, and a sublimated desire to get back on stage, win out, and Floyd and Louis hit the road in an El Dorado convertible, performing a couple of Blues Brothers-style gigs along the way.
Sharon Leal plays Cleo's the vocally talented daughter of a singer Floyd and Louis both knew biblically. The question of Cleo's parentage and the problem of Cleo's husband (a walking ghetto stereotype played, as best he can, by Affion Crockett) puts a bit of meat on the script's bones. The script proceeds to a couple of wild plot twists that raise the stakes: the role played by Louis' revolver may not be a politically correct comic take on the legacy of beloved soul artists, but it demonstrates that Soul Men has some balls. Sean Hayes agreeably wafts in and out as the Real Deal's representation. Also garnering the film attention is a "we're not worthy" cameo by Isaac Hayes, playing himself at the VH1 show.
Mac and Jackson's brotherly verbal tussling--including glorious flurries of profanity--take full advantage of the "R" rating (also allowed by the rating: a, um, handful of bare breasts). In one of the printable insults, Floyd says of Louis' admitted rustiness, "That's an insult to rust, ain't it?" Jennifer Coolidge's sex scene with Mac falls back on a stupid cliché for a yucky yuk, but the boys' exploits of an evening dovetail with a fresher idea. What's best about Soul Men are the musical moments, whether Floyd and Louis are rehearsing "I'm Your Puppet" on the side of a desert highway or performing a full-blown production number ("Walk in the Park") on the stage of the Apollo. Mac and Jackson more than carry the tunes, and they seem to be having a ball swinging their hips to the moves of choreographer Jamal Sims. The highlight is "Boogie Ain't Nuttin' (But Gettin' Down)," an up-tempo number performed in a honky-tonk, complete with Jackson leading a line-dance. Soul Men may get by on novelty, but what novelty!
Soul Men looks damn good on hi-def Blu-Ray: colors leap off the screen, shadow detail is fine, and the image is generally crisp all around. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound options reward with mixes that ably serve both the dialogue and music with pleasing directionality.
Fans will enjoy a generous array of bonus features here, beginning with an informative and amiable commentary by director Malcolm Lee and writers Matt Stone & Rob Ramsey. They recall with admirable frankness their roles in the development and making of the film and add plenty of interesting details. Towards the end Lee reveals the celebrity whose role ending up going to expand Isaac Hayes' cameo. You'll agree that the film is better off with Hayes' expanded role, especially given his untimely death.
"The Soul Men: Bernie Mac & Samuel L. Jackson" (9:30, SD) is the closest thing to a standard making-of featurette here, with the focus falling on the two leads, their friendship and their chemistry. Lee, Mac, Jackson, producers David T. Friendly, Steven Greener, Charles Castaldi, and Adam Herschman sit for interviews. "The Cast of Soul Men" (7:42, SD) gets into the supporting players, with comments from Jackson, Friendly, Sharon Leal, Affion Crockett, Greener, Castaldi, John Legend, Lee, and Coolidge.
"Director Malcolm Lee" (2:50, SD) gets a profile with praise from Greener, Castaldi, Coolidge, Crockett, Herschman, and Leal, "A Tribute to Bernie Mac" (7:26, SD) has interviews with Jackson, Lee, Leal, Herschman, Crockett, and Jennifer Coolidge, and "A Tribute to Isaac Hayes" (4:03, SD) rounds up Castaldi, Mac, Jackson, Lee, Herschman, Leal, and Hayes' son Darius Hayes.
"'Boogie Ain't Nuttin': Behind the Scenes" (2:31, SD) includes interview snippets, but mostly depicts Lee, Mac and Jackson recording and filming the number. "Bernie Mac at the Apollo" (4:17, SD) has a few words from Mac and Lee, but mostly consists of footage of Mac entertaining the crowd of extras at the Apollo. Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:25, HD). The DVD and, in particular, the Blu-ray of Soul Men offer lovely parting gifts for fans of Mac and Hayes.
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