There are two reasons to put up with "Soul Men," and that's the soul men themselves. Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac appear to be having a good time, and for most of this raunchy, poorly orchestrated buddy comedy, that's enough.
Neither actor comes to mind when you think '60s doo-wop, '70s R&B, or '80s funk, so asking Jackson and Mac to croon, swing, and do the robot is shrewd. Their physical smoothness and strong voices are surprising, like seeing your uncles do an ancient but timeless routine at the family-reunion talent show.
Unfortunately, the routine is attached to a plot. Jackson is Louis Hinds, and Mac is Floyd Henderson, and back in the day, they were the Real Deal, side singers for the crooner Marcus Hooks (John Legend). After the group split up, Hooks achieved solo superstardom, turning from Smokey Robinson to George Clinton to John Legend in bad old-age makeup. Failing to capitalize on their one hit single, Louis turned to bank robbery, and Floyd opened a chain of car washes.
They haven't seen each other since an acrimonious falling out. In the intervening years, Louis has corn-rowed his hair and carries a gun; Floyd has replaced his hip. When a VH-1 tribute to Marcus occasions a Real Deal reunion and handsome payday, they're back in each other's lives - and in Floyd's car. Wouldn't you know it: Louis hates to fly. So "Soul Men" swiftly becomes a road-trip movie. Flying from Los Angeles to New York would have put things at 20 minutes. On the road, they can bicker, reminisce, and polish their showbiz rust by performing in biker bars and country-western saloons where the patrons line dance to their songs. They can sleep with white chicks, too.
Yes, after one tune-up show, Mac's eyes meet Jennifer Coolidge's, and the movie's wackiest and most lascivious scenes follow. "Soul Men" is Mac's last film (he died in August), and I didn't realize just how much I would miss him until I saw him wince and cringe beneath Coolidge's buxom bad mamma-jamma. Mac does everything in this scene - pop his eyes, purse his lips, scream, moan, cry. Agony and ecstasy are hilariously indistinguishable.
The crime, of course, is that for most of his career, Mac had to make do with movies not much better than this. Here he's funny despite both the script, which was typed up by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, and the broad, cartoonish direction by Malcolm D. Lee. "Soul Men" even finds little reason for a cameo by the late Isaac Hayes. That's typical of the movie's confusion. It's a crude satire that wants to tug at the heart, too. In one scene Louis and Floyd are dropping in on the grown daughter (Sharon Leal) of the woman who split up the Real Deal. In the next, they're beating up the idiot drug dealer whose raps sample their music and who arrives at their Memphis stop in half a body cast. Did I mention the nerdy white kid and soul enthusiast from the record company shepherding the Real Deal to New York? There, I did.
Occasionally, inspiration flashes. The opening montage presents the history of Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal in a way that suggests that someone needs to do for soul music what "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" did for country, and "CB4" did for rap. But that setup is misleading, too, since it makes us unsure just how seriously to take Louis and Floyd as performers. The truth is that Jackson and Mac make a pretty wonderful oldies act. Even if the clumsy editing implies stunt doubles are doing some of dancing, in front of a live audience it's tough to dispute that they really are the real deal.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.