- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

“The Fighting Temptations” has an amusing ring even if you’re not certain what the title is describing. The explanation emerges belatedly: it’s the nickname chosen for a church choir, representing the Beulah Baptist congregation from a small town in Georgia called Monte Carlo.

Recruited during episodes that are meant to bear a humorous resemblance to the way fighting men were assembled for battle in movies such as “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Dirty Dozen,” the Beulah voices seek recognition in an annual competition called The Gospel Explosion.

Despite this formal showcase for a melodic set of characters, the movie generates the lion’s share of its good will, melodic and otherwise, during the early song numbers. In fact, the heavenly sensation is overwhelming during a flashback prologue, which depicts a bygone Beulah choir rocking the foundations with “I’m Getting Ready,” sneakily augmented by gospel powerhouses Shirley Caesar and Ann Nesby, who turn out to be a visiting eminence and a ghost, respectively.

Although a mainstay of this particular choir, Miss Nesby’s Aunt Sally Walker influences most of the plot from the afterlife. She leaves a will that entrusts the choir’s revival in the present to a nephew named Darrin Hill. Played by Cuba Gooding Jr., he needs to be summoned from Manhattan — and a career as an unscrupulous advertising executive — in order to retrieve his roots and his honor.



The director, Jonathan Lynn, allows the curtain raiser with Rev. Caesar and Miss Nesby to make a sustained, resounding impact. It’s similarly gratifying a bit later when he’s willing to linger over a nightclub performance of the Peggy Lee standard ,”Fever,” by leading lady Beyonce Knowles as a reluctant Beulah castoff and single mom named Lilly. She has shifted her allegiance to secular blues since being bullied by the generation-straddling church tyrant Paulina Pritchett, formidably embodied by LaTanya Richardson (actress wife of Samuel L. Jackson), who unveils a dynamic and confident acting style.

The flashback material identifies Lilly and Darrin as childhood sweethearts. Lilly’s separation from the church is anticipated in the fate of Darrin’s mom, Maryann, played by Faith Evans. An unwed mom and a torch singer, she left the church and the town after offending the ever-intolerant Paulina. Pursuing a professional career, with young Darrin in tow, Maryann died relatively young somewhere along the nightclub circuit.

When the grown Darrin returns to his hometown, he rediscovers not only a former playmate in Lilly but also a melodic reincarnation of Maryann. The movie would probably be on sturdier ground if it concentrated on those affinities, content to bring both Darrin and Lilly back into the Beulah fold in order to wed the spiritual with the carnal and the devout with the pop.

Darrin’s need to make a clean breast of things echoes the professor Henry Hill deception from “The Music Man.” In addition to hiding a disgraceful episode in New York, he unwisely cons the Monte Carlo folks by posing as a music producer. The plot goes astray while compelling him to audition diverse and eccentric recruits from left field. A puzzling lunge, since the early prospects include such swell close-to-home specimens as Miss Knowles, Melba Moore as a skinny but clarion-voiced spinster called Bessie and Mike Epps as a cabbie named Lucius — weirdly underutilized despite a hilarious introductory harangue on the topic “Georgia booty.”

Before ballooning out of proportion and trying to become all things affirmative for all shades of joyful or admonitory singing, “The Fighting Temptations” has the makings of a uniquely appealing musical comedy. For a while you’re even foolish enough to imagine that the filmmakers feel so confident about their gospel performers that they’ll let them predominate.

That seems to be asking the impossible, but the highlights are worth savoring, along with the promise embodied in Beyonce Knowles. She doesn’t seem to be rushing anything or giving herself airs. She’s transposing proven vocal strengths to the screen while carefully measuring her impact as part of a genial acting ensemble.

With that approach she probably has more than a fighting chance to wear well as a movie headliner.

**

WHAT: “The Fighting Temptations”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Written by Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson. Cinematography by Alfonso Beato. Production Design by Victoria Paul. Costume Design by Mary Jane Fort and Tracey A. White. Original Score by Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and James Wright, with musical supervision by Spring Aspers. Choreography by Eartha D. Robinson and Shawnette Heard.

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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