Bernie Mac’s last film before his untimely death is a let-it-rip, irreverent comedy invested with the comedian’s trademark brand of earthy humor.
Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) haven’t spoken since their days singing together as a duo ended 20 years ago after the departure of their R&B group’s leader John Legend (Marcus Hooks). Legend’s recent passing presents an opportunity for Floyd and Louis to reunite for a memorial concert at the Apollo Theater if only they can make amends and survive a cross-country drive together. There’s a vibe of historic musical authenticity as the knockabout guys take Floyd’s convertible green Cadillac through Memphis while working out a contentious question about who fathered a now-grown singer named Cleo (well played by Sharon Leal).
Soul Men is an accidental love letter to the comic genius of Bernie Mac. It’s full of joy and even a surprising amount of clear-eyed innocence. It doesn’t hurt that Mac and Jackson perform their own song-and-dance numbers, or that the late Isaac Hayes lends his sly presence to the piece.
It’s a very different experience watching Mac hitting his comic marks for the last time than it might have been if he were alive for the film’s release. His passing informs the humor and musically related narrative import of the movie, making it as much about shifting tides of musical sensibilities as it is about cultural changes of political correctness and race relations. Even the recent death of Blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore (aka Dolomite) plays into a perceived idea that Soul Men represents “blue” humor, as practiced by Black comedians, as a means of social liberation and personal rebellion.
Anyone who has ever been to a live performance of Moore, Richard Pryor or the younger Bernie Mac knows the buoyant feeling of being lifted by their deceptively self-aggrandizing stance toward sexuality, social interaction and connection to history. There’s a comfort in being sermonized to by these seen-it-all comedians whose dirty-old-man tendencies have an equalizing effect.
Jackson is an interesting, if obvious, choice to play the grumpy straight man to Mac’s fast-twitch physical comedy. Jackson’s vocal chops aren’t up to Bernie’s comfort level with melodies, but together the men enjoy an oil-and-water chemistry that’s intrinsically funny.
When the guys end up unknowingly bedding a mother (hilariously played by Jennifer Coolidge) and her grown daughter (Sara Erikson) the comedy spikes with an overthe-top edge that puts to shame the lewd efforts of garden-variety teen sex comedies. The genius of the movie, however, is the way the filmmakers infuse an R&B-era feeling of brotherhood (ala The Chi-lites) to the story. It goes farther than a great Soul musical comedy like The Blues Brothers in pinning down an aesthetic and attitude of the music itself. A culture clash that comes about between the two standard bearers of R&B’s sophisticated musicality and an incipient Rap group, led by Cleo’s abusive drug-dealing boyfriend, refreshingly points out a generational divide between past musical traditions and current trends.
Soul Men is a well-balanced adult comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audience. It represents a high watermark for director Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother), and more importantly stands as a time capsule of ethnic ideals and expression.
The film’s closing credits include interview footage with Bernie Mac that caps the movie off with a fitting context of overflowing personality from the Chicago legend himself. It’s hard not to get a little choked up about the ample abilities of the late entertainer. Grade: A-