In a lot of ways Soul Men is the generic, subpar comedy that its title suggests. Few scenes go by without a dick or poop joke, the two leads (Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac) don't so much act together as shout one-liners over each others heads most of the time, and most of the plot turns can be seen coming as soon as a character steps onto the screen. But somewhere amid the genuine rapport between Jackson and Mac, the pitch-perfect Motown songs that make up the soundtrack, and the posthumous appreciation for Mac's blazing talent, Soul Men becomes something much more than it intended. A tribute to a musical era gone by as well as Mac's career, Soul Men is highly imperfect but also hugely enjoyable.
The movie's low budget, and seemingly low ambitions, can be seen just in the sloppy casting-- Mac and Jackson, nearly 50 and nearly 60 respectively, are supposedly backup singers from the Motown group The Real Deal, which was presumably at its peak of popularity in the late 60s. Even crazier than that, pop singer John Legend, who turned 30 this year, plays the lead singer, who went on to a successful solo career while Louis (Jackson) and Floyd (Mac) foundered on their own. In 2008, Mac is somehow old enough to be checked into a retirement facility by his kids, and Jackson is the mean tough guy at the local auto shop; they haven't spoken to each other in years, but when their old lead singer dies and the two are invited to sing at his funeral in New York, Floyd sees a comeback opportunity and persuades Louis to come along.
Because Louis doesn't fly, they make the trip from L.A. to New York in the least logical way possible-- a cross-country road trip in Floyd's Pontiac Grand Am, dubbed "The Mothership." While on the road Floyd books gigs in various fleabag motels, just for practice, which end with predictable results. They also stop in on Cleo (Sharon Leal), the daughter of an old fling, who comes complete with a nutbag of a boyfriend (Affion Crockett). In the meantime a PR agent in New York (Sean Hayes) dispatches his thug-wannabe intern (Adam Herschman) to look after Louis and Floyd, meeting up with them in Nashville, just in time for the really ridiculous stuff to begin.
The movie's jokes are almost uniformly lame, from an extended scene of a prostate exam in the beginning to the intern's incessant, and irritating, attempts at being hip and black. What keeps the movie going is the music, both in hearing The Real Deal's old songs and Floyd and Louis's occasional performances. Both Mac and Jackson have admirable singing and dancing skills, and songs both old ("Hold On I'm Comin'" and "I'm Your Puppet") and new ("A Walk in the Park," written by Cee-lo for the film) buoy the film along for its 100 minutes.
That all goes double for the final scene at the Apollo, where the happy ending gets wrapped up and even the bad guys start tapping their feet. Without the music, and the sparring chemistry between Mac and Jackson, Soul Men probably would have been as lame as director Malcolm D. Lee's previous efforts Undercover Brother and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins. But the two leads put their all into a movie that's beneath their talents, and their effort pays off. Soul Men isn't nearly the movie it could have been, but for Bernie Mac and Motown fans alike, it's a nostalgia trip worth taking.