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Soul Men pays fitting tribute to the late Bernie Mac
If the dream of every comic is to have his humor live on long after he’s left the stage, then the late Bernie Mac has exited this world on a high note. Soul Men, a comedy completed shortly before Mac’s untimely death in August, is no classic, but the comedian, who was a much better actor than he got credit for being, is at his crackly, cranky best here.
Mac plays Floyd Henderson, a present-day car-wash mogul who, back in the 1970s, was an R&B backup singer alongside a fellow named Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson). They sang and danced behind Marcus Hooks (John Legend), who one day took off without so much as a goodbye. On his own, Marcus became a funk-soul god (think James Brown), leaving Floyd and Louis to part as bitter enemies after their one and only album together tanked.
After 20 years of no contact, Floyd bursts into Louis’ fleabag LA apartment with a plan for the two men to drive to New York and perform at an Apollo Theater tribute show for Marcus, whose sudden death hasn’t exactly wrecked his former band mates. “I’m cryin’ the tears of a motherfuckin’ clown,” Louis declares before booting Floyd out the door, which gives director Malcolm Lee the chance to plant his camera at the end of the hallway and observe Mac as he goes off on a vintage comic tear. Stalking back and forth, moving in and out of camera range, mumbling and cursing like a sailor, Floyd is a funny, frantic mess. But the memorable, oddly moving thing about the scene is the sense one gets that Mac, as he paces and riffs, is conjuring forth his original comic self, the one who existed before a hit sitcom made him respectable and family-friendly. In that dimly lit hallway, the raspy-voiced, gleefully profane Original King of Comedy returns.
Louis, of course, finally opens the door, and the duo hits the road in Floyd’s lime-green El Dorado convertible. They bicker, get stranded and eventually start staging their old act in dive bars. Their voices are ragged, but the old-school hand gestures and side-shuffle footwork are mighty fine. Is anyone surprised that Samuel L. Jackson can move as smoothly as he curses?
When Louis steps off the stage in an Amarillo bar and glides right on into a country-and-western line dance, the moment should be iconic, but director Lee doesn’t appear to be feeling the joy. He holds back, literally keeping the camera from fully entering the dance, so the scene fails to soar. In films such as Undercover Brother and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Lee displayed a gift for working with actors, but his visual style rarely matches the energy level of his performers. If the sight of Jackson doing a Texas two-step excites this director, it doesn’t show.
Soul Men dulls out in the home stretch, but then come the end credits, for which Lee has assembled a surprisingly long (and quite lovely) tribute to not only Mac, but also real-life soul man Isaac Hayes, who has a brief cameo in the film and who died this summer, one day after the comedian.
“You want to leave a lasting impression on your audience,” Mac says in an on-set interview, after which we see him working the crowd that turned up to be extras in the Apollo sequence. He tells a risqué joke; he gives a stagehand a hard time; he entertains. Being an extra is a thankless job, but those lucky folks, you gotta figure, will be retelling Mac jokes for the rest of their days.
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