"Soul Men"

Dir. Malcolm D. Lee (MGM) -- 3.5 STARS

There is an intuitive bias when judging the cinematic merit of films that feature the last shining moments of a dearly loved star—in the case of “Soul Men,” comedy king Bernie Mac. The death of the lead actor threatens to overtake much of the film’s content, unintentionally confining it to the rose-colored domain of a tribute; a funeral with popcorn and sticky floors.

This is not to say that movies with recently departed stars are only well-received for this reason. “Dark Knight,” for example, is a film of such magnitude that it would have been a commercial and critical success with or without the death of Heath Ledger. Regardless of how well a film stands alone, the question is no longer just, “Is this a good movie?” but also, “Is this movie a fitting end to a career that ended too soon?” And the answer to the latter in reference to “Soul Men” is, “Yes.” Although it might soon be forgotten were it not for Mac’s passing, “Soul Men” manages to entertain as an homage to the days of soul music, political incorrectness, and a man who embodied both.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee and written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone—the duo behind “Intolerable Cruelty”—“Soul Men” is a lowbrow comedy about two 1970s backup singers who reunite to perform at a memorial concert for their former group leader. The film opens with a hilarious montage of the group’s earlier years when they were known as “Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal.” When Hooks (John Legend) decides to go solo, the two back-up singers—Floyd Henderson (Mac) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson)—pursue a career as “The Real Deal.” They ultimately fail due to poor record sales and the duo’s love for the same woman.

Four decades later, Marcus Hooks is one of the most honored artists of all time, while Floyd is a recently retired entrepreneur having trouble adjusting to his new life and Louis is a tough parolee with little to his name. When offered a chance to perform at the Apollo in Harlem to honor Hooks’s death, Floyd and Louis reluctantly agree and head off on a cross-country trip to New York during which the characters engage in strange sexual encounters, paternalistic discussions, and enough F-word variations to color even the most mundane dialogue.

Perhaps the most salient feature of the film, however, is the theme of old age. From the numerous instances of Floyd popping Viagra to jokes about broken hips to a scene in which a slightly older woman (Jennifer Coolidge) performs fellatio with no teeth, the audience recognizes immediately that this is a movie about people who are over-the-hill and having difficulty dealing with that fact. Even the literal age of Mac and Jackson seem to be a factor as the director is forced to use obvious stunt doubles for the lamest of dance steps—their old bodies simply can’t do it like that anymore. As a result, the film appeals only to those who can relate to sufferings of Jackson and Mac, or those who don’t care either way.

What saves the movie is the chemistry between Mac and Jackson as they do what they do best: drop f-bombs. Jackson is featured in a slightly lighter role than audience members may be used to, but the real comedy comes from Mac, who takes a limited character to the extreme. Mac impeccably delivers uncouth lines almost every two minutes, destining them for imitation in the future. Though crude comedy is decidedly less-valued in critical circles, there is no denying that it makes you laugh.

“Soul Men” is dedicated to both Mac and Isaac Hayes, who makes a cameo in the film and died a day after Mac. A tribute to Mac rolls throughout the film’s closing credits, consisting of outtakes and stand-up bits he did on-set during breaks in production. In terms of both comedy and emotionality, Mac’s raw and honest performance here is almost better than the movie that precedes it. It makes you feel as if, despite knowing who Mac was, you are just now really meeting him—a fact that makes his untimely death all the more tragic.

You can’t help but appreciate “Soul Men” as a final symbol of Mac’s contributions to comedy and pop culture. And although it is flawed, “Soul Men” is a movie worth seeing at the very least for the crude stylings of an underappreciated comic genius.

—Staff writer Jessica O. Matthews can be reached at jmatthews@fas.harvard.edu.