Let's be honest: if things hadn't happened as they did, Soul Men would likely be another throwaway buddy comedy, forgotten before it even hit theatres. But it was the final film of both co-star Bernie Mac and guest star Isaac Hayes (who, in a ghoulish coincidence, died over the same weekend in August of 2008), and like it or not, that affects how we watch it now. It was easy to shrug off Mac's previous misfires, like Mr. 3000 and Guess Who?, in the hope that one day he would find a big-screen vehicle that suited his enormous talent. Now that we know that day will not come, we're a little more likely to ignore the flaws of his final starring vehicle, and take from it what we can.
Mac and Samuel L. Jackson star as Floyd and Louis, the "Real Deal" of the old school R&B trio Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. When Marcus went solo, Floyd and Louis couldn't hack it on their own; their records didn't sell, their friendship couldn't survive a fight over a woman, and they both disappeared into obscurity. Now their old front man has died, and they have the chance to make a splash by performing at his memorial concert (at the Apollo, of course).
The set-up is mighty slow going; aside from a quick Behind The Music-style opening, there are few laughs to be found (a Mike Epps cameo sure doesn't help matters). But once the pair finally get on screen together, the movie gets a shot of adrenaline. Their first shared scene, in which Mac visits Jackson in his rat-hole apartment to talk him into the gig, is flat-out terrific; they snipe, they snarl, their timing is impeccable, they're great together. And not unimportantly, the film's R rating allows free reign for two men who are artists with the profanity.
That scene sets us up for a hard-edged, modern, African-American Sunshine Boys; it is unfortunately a promise that the movie can't deliver on. It seems that Jackson's character "doesn't fly" and the trip across country to the Apollo must be done by car. So the guys hit the road in Mac's vintage El Dorado, picking up some gigs along the way, to engage in a fairly predictable series of road-movie adventures and personal drama.
Some of it plays; I liked how Jackson chastises Mac for "pulling the Al Green out there" (going out too quick for the encore), and there's a charming sequence in a country and western bar that doesn't go where you'd predict. Both men are fairly credible as aged singers and dancers; they're not great, but they're good enough that you believe they were great.
But the screenplay frequently fails to deliver. The numerous sex jokes are more dirty than funny, and a number of its side plots and peripheral characters (particularly an ignoramus would-be rapper and drug dealer) go absolutely nowhere. As with so many modern comedies, it all but dies in the third act when it stats taking itself too seriously; the big climax is enjoyable enough, but is reminiscent of The Blues Brothers to a point of distraction. The direction by Malcolm D. Lee (of Undercover Brother and the execrable The Best Man) is competent but colorless, reminiscent of late period John Landis.
The end credits include an unorthodox, fourth-wall breaking tribute to Mac and Hayes, and as awkward a fit as it is, it's probably the right move. Like his comedic forerunner Richard Pryor, Mac didn't headline many great comedy films. But he was always good for a smile and a few laughs, no matter how big or small the role, and he left us with a few more in Soul Men.
Soul Men gets a nice, sharp 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The skin tones are natural, there are no noticeable compression artifacts or noise, and colors are crisp and vivid (particularly the bright lime green of Mac's Cadillac).
Audio is likewise solid, particularly by the (usually low) standards of a dialogue-heavy comedy. We get a fairly active 5.1 mix, boosted by occasional gunshots and some terrific old Stax tunes on the soundtrack. A scene in a rap "studio" gives the LFE channel a quick but thorough workout, and the concert scenes (particularly the closer) are nicely immersive. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
I will give them this: if there is anything to know about the making of Soul Men, it has not been left off this disc. First up is an affable (if slightly self-congratulatory) Audio Commentary track by director Lee and writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Next are a series of clip-and-interview featurettes, leaving no detail unnoted: "The Soul Men: Bernie Mac & Samuel L. Jackson" (9:31), which covers the previous friendship of Mac and Jackson and the development of the project; "The Cast of Soul Men" (7:42), spotlighting the supporting cast; and "Director Malcolm Lee" (2:51)--no prizes for guessing what that one's about. The duo of departed co-stars each get a memorial featurette with "A Tribute to Bernie Mac" (7:27) and "A Tribute to Isaac Hayes" (4:04).
"Boogie Ain't Nuttin': Behind The Scenes" (2:32) gives us a quick peek at Jackson and Mac in the recording studio, laying down the vocals for their songs. The set's finest bonus feature, however, is "Bernie Mac at the Apollo" (4:18), a too-brief but very funny glimpse of Mac entertaining extras with some impromptu stand-up between takes during the shooting of the climax (at a reconstructed Apollo in Shreveport, Louisiana). The film's Theatrical Trailer (2:26) rounds out the package.
There's no danger of confusing Soul Men with a great comedy; it's too well-worn and predictable for that. But it has a few laughs, some genuine camaraderie, and the final performance of a terrific comic actor. You don't need to run right out and buy it, but you could do a lot worse for a weekend Netflix. Rent It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.