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Thursday, February 5, 2009

SOUL MEN -- DVD review by porfle

Some comedies just make you laugh, which is great. But others, like SOUL MEN (2008), are so delightful that they not only make you laugh, but they make you feel so good that you can hardly sit still while you're watching it.

Director Malcolm Lee has a lot to do with that, because he knows how to get the most out of both funny dialogue scenes and flat-out slapstick, along with the more emotional stuff--all of which is perfectly balanced here. Writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone have a lot to do with it, too, because they've put together a story with plenty of heart that'll have you feeling for the characters even as you're laughing at them. But most of all, what makes this movie tick is the perfect chemistry between its stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac, who make a terrific comedy team. These guys are just downright funny together.

They play Louis and Floyd, former backup singers who are reunited for a tribute performance after the death of their one-time lead singer Marcus Hooks (John Legend). Louis is on parole for bank robbery and is living in a dump, while Floyd, after handing over a successful car-washing business to his son, has been put out to pasture in a boring retirement community. While driving cross-country from California to the Apollo Theater in New York, the erstwhile friends hone their long-dormant singing skills at various small venues along the way, while trying to work out the personal issues that drove them apart years before.

Thus, much of SOUL MEN is a rollicking road movie with plenty of funny stuff going on before Louis and Floyd make it to the Apollo. My favorite is a stopover in Amarillo, Texas, where they perform in a honky tonk with a country-western band backing them up. It's a joyous moment, with Louis going out onto the dance floor to join the audience in a line dance as the two musical sensibilities mesh. That night a Viagra-stoked Floyd ends up in a hilarious sexual encounter with Jennifer Coolidge (the "MILF" from AMERICAN PIE) in which he learns the meaning of the term "velveteen rub."

Later, they stop off at the house of Odetta, the woman who came between them all those years ago, only to find that she's passed on and that her daughter Cleo now lives there, and one of them just may be her father. Sharon Leal is very good as Cleo, but even better is Affion Crockett as her no-account boyfriend Lester, a really bad aspiring rapper who makes the mistake of getting on Louis and Floyd's bad side. Lester's the funniest character and has the best line in the whole movie. Lying in the street after the guys have thwarted his attempt to kill them by hitting him with their car, he whines: "Let me kill you one time at least, man!"

The great Isaac Hayes appears as himself in a couple of scenes. Millie Jackson does a brief cameo, and 70s porn fans will be happy to see the venerable Vanessa del Rio in an amusing bit as one of Floyd's retirement community conquests. Also adding to the funny is Adam Herschman as a nerdy record company intern who's been charged with making sure Louis and Floyd get to the show on time, which becomes increasingly difficult after they land in jail.

As you might guess, there's a lot of great soul music in this movie. Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac do their own vocals and they're not bad. The soundtrack includes songs by Booker T. and the MGs, Albert King, the Bar Kays, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, with a gorgeous new version of Isaac Hayes' "Never Can Say Goodbye" over the closing credits. Stanley Clarke performs the incidental music for the film.

The DVD is 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound. The commentary track by director Lee and writers Ramsey and Stone is outstanding. Extras include a trailer and several brief featurettes: "The Soul Men: Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson", "The Cast of Soul Men", "Director Malcolm D. Lee", "A Tribute to Bernie Mac", "A Tribute to Isaac Hayes", "Boogie Ain't Nuttin': Behind-The-Scenes", and "Bernie Mac at the Apollo."

The latter is a fond look at Bernie doing some impromptu standup for the extras between takes during the Apollo scenes (which were actually filmed in the Strand Theater in Shreveport, Louisiana). He loved to entertain and always gave props to the fans for his success, who in turn clearly loved the guy. The closing credits also contain a moving tribute to both Bernie and Isaac Hayes, and the film is dedicated to them. The fact that they're both gone gives a bittersweet tinge to the feelgood ending of SOUL MEN, but it's nice to know that they left on such a high note.

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