This is the second movie I’ve had to suffer through from Malcolm D. Lee (“Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”) this year, and if anything it’s even worse. The sad thing is, Lee’s shown himself to be a promising director at times, with a deft hand for characterization unencumbered by melodrama or fake emotion. Unfortunately, he’s also shown himself to be incapable at comedy, falling back on puerility to hide the fact that none of what his characters are doing, or their situations, is particularly funny. Mostly because, like his stories, they refuse to take chances, repeating tried and true formulas instead of characters and plots. Lee is certainly not the only director out there continually remaking other people’s films, but he doesn’t have the skill to make the repetition enjoyable on its own. “Soul Men” boasts some of his strengths, but all of his weaknesses.
Despite the billing and advertisement, this film is mainly about Floyd and his last reach to have the kind of life he always wanted. Floyd’s introduction is hammer to the skull painful, but as matter of showing how far life has dragged him down it works. Or it would do, if Lee and screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (“Man of the House”) didn’t insist on using the same tone for every joke in the film, robbing the introduction of power. The filmmakers seem to think there is no set up or situation in the world that can’t be made funnier by adding Viagra to it.
And yet there are moments of genuine soul in “Soul Men.” Usually quiet ones, when the characters can escape the desperate farce and actually interact like real human beings. Whether it be comparing failed relationships or revealing how they actually felt about old partner Marcus, they actually feel genuine. It helps to have Samuel L. Jackson keeping these parts afloat, usually with the typical quiet stoicism that typifies most of his roles. Bernie Mac, in his final film, tries hard to keep up, but tends to end up carrying the comedy water more often. Which is probably for the best, as his attempts at desperation and worry often seem to overdone next to Jackson.
But it’s enough to get from scene to scene, and because “Soul Men” is a road picture and supporting characters don’t stick around much. Which may be a blessing, because some of them like Adam Herschman and Affion Crockett are beyond obnoxious.
In the end, its lack of originality and extremely low sense of humor keep “Soul Men” down a lot further than it deserves. There’s potential there, but it’s never realized. There is a nice little tribute to Bernie (and to a lesser extent co-star Isaac Hayes) at the end which is nice but if anything shows just how empty what came before was.