- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

A line in the screenplay for “Soul Men” lingers in a way its writer never intended. “At the first spank and cry, we’re all dying, but I’m not on an accelerated schedule,” a character says.

It turned out that comedian Bernie Mac - who stars alongside Samuel L. Jackson in this funky, raunchy comedy-musical about two washed-up soul singers attempting to mount a comeback - was on an accelerated schedule.

Dead at 50, and all too soon.

The great Isaac Hayes, who appears briefly (and some of whose music figures in the soundtrack) died within 24 hours of Mr. Mac. He was 65.

“Soul Men” was hardly meant as some sort of valedictory; it’s more of a tribute to a sound - Memphis soul - than to any of its stars.

It’s plagued by an awfully stale formula: two bickering buddies on a road trip. Its plot is a pile of cliches. Even some of its gross-out gags are warmed over - like Mr. Mac’s encounter with a proctologist, a rip-off of Chevy Chase’s “Moon River” routine in “Fletch.”

Still, it’s worth a few belly laughs, and for Mr. Mac - who was never out to impress any guild, academy or festival jury - that probably was good enough.

In “Soul Men,” he plays Floyd Henderson, who, after a brief run at pop-music stardom with an outfit called the Real Deal, has become a Viagra-popping insomniac put out to pasture by a nephew who controls his purse strings.

When he learns of the death of Marcus Hooks (neo-soul singer John Legend, with gray highlights), the Real Deal frontman who made it big, Henderson smells opportunity. After a tribute concert for Hooks is booked at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Henderson wrangles another ex-Real Dealer, Louis Hinds (Mr. Jackson), who has done time and turned into a bitter Sun Tzu-quoting urban ascetic, into a reunion.

Hinds’ aversion to flying sets up an Americana carnival ride from Los Angeles to New York City (in a pink Cadillac, no less). There are a couple of ball-and-socket-oiling warm-ups at “Blues Brothers”-ish juke joints along the way, too.

Mr. Mac and Mr. Jackson are fairly good sports about the song-and-dance routines. There are lots of thigh-high camera cutaways featuring the fancy footwork of professional hoofers, but the stars do plenty of their own hamming - and, we should note, their own singing.

The songs are fun and lively redos of oldies like James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” and Rufus Thomas’ “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’ (But Gettin’ Down).”

Henderson and Hinds at first pick at old wounds, throw punches, fire rounds - but soul music proves the grand salve.

“Soul Men” scored big points with me, at least, with its utter smack-down of hip-hop culture: its lack of originality, its mangling of language and its sophomoric fashion sense. Affion Crockett plays the movie’s token villain, dimwitted wannabe gangsta-rapper Lester, whom Henderson and Hinds meet when they hit up an old girlfriend for money.

The comic interplay between Mr. Mac and Mr. Jackson is natural and obviously affectionate but not always hilarious; “Soul Men” too often depends on vulgarity to compensate for its banality.

However, the music produced decades ago by Memphis’ Stax Records is a treasure and deserves these props. Any movie that sees fit to slip in a cameo by Charles “Skip” Pitts, he of “Theme From Shaft” wah-wah guitar, is OK with me.

★★

TITLE: Soul Men

RATING: R (Pervasive profanity; sexual content; some nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. Produced by Charles Castaldi, David T. Friendly and Steve Greener. Written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti. Original music by Stanley Clarke.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.soulmen-movie.com

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