Having demonstrated conclusively that she’s a whole lotta woman in Goldmember (not to mention the many iterations of “Crazy in Love,” the summer’s runaway single, that she performed everywhere and always with lavish energy), Beyoncé Knowles now shows another side. Sort of. In The Fighting Temptations, the splendiferous Beyoncé plays a spunky single mother in small town Georgia, singing in smoky clubs to support her adorable child. Gloriously talented and supermodel-beautiful even when she’s made up to seem to wear no makeup, Lilly keeps her own peace by avoiding contact with her neighbors.
This tentative tranquility is disturbed by the arrival of Darrin (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a onetime homeboy who long ago moved away with his mother (Faith Evans in flashbacks), who, like Lilly, was kicked out of church (and barred from church singing) because she wasn’t pious enough for the ladies.
One lady in particular has the power to do all this snubbing, the reverend’s sister Paulina (LaTanya Richardson). When she sees Darrin, her hackles come up, but little does she know how strained her life is about to turn. Darrin, you know even before he arrives in town, is in his own peck of trouble, with a backstory that blames mom. Apparently, he’s learned to be a good liar from his dear departed and ever-struggling mama (and thank goodness she’s dead, or Faith would be playing mama in old-person’s makeup to Gooding: not a pretty idea), and so, the film’s logic has it, now in some difficult financial straits credit card debt and newly fired from a New York City ad agency.
Darrin has returned to Monte Carlo, Georgia for his favorite, recently deceased aunt’s (Ann Nesby) funeral, whereupon he meets with his old buddy Lucius (Mike Epps, on hand for broad comic diversions and wisecracks about local “booty”) and learns that he’s in line for a considerable inheritance from auntie, if he directs the Beulah Baptist Church choir all the way to the Gospel Explosion. If they win, he gets $150,000. That is, enough to pay off his debts. His efforts to achieve this goal entail gathering together all the nearby talent he can find, beginning, of course, with Lilly.
Darrin catches up with her in the smoky club, where she’s singing “Fever,” and yes, she gets him all heated up. Though she puts him off, thinking he’s a slick city feller, he’s determined to win the prize, and eventually, to win her over. And herein lies the principal trouble for The Fighting Temptations: Lilly is right. Darrin is a slick city feller, and even when he gets back in touch with his basically decent Southern boy’s morality (or rather, discovers it for the first time, because it’s unclear that he ever showed generosity or sweetness even as a child). While Darrin is plainly supposed to follow in the footsteps of other citified folks who go home again (Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, Michael J. Fox in Doc Hollywood), there’s not a minute where Gooding’s performance convinces you this is possible.
In part, this is a function of Gooding’s baggage: has any performer made so many crushingly bad choices in a row (beginning with that on-stage dance when he won a Supporting Actor Oscar for Jerry Maguire, but more notably, movies like Snow Dogs, Rat Race, and Boat Trip)? Here, Gooding’s infamous Energizer buzziness tends to overwhelm the moment — any moment — underlining Darrin’s displacement tensions and overstating his lack of focus. As practical-minded and painfully honest as Lilly is declared to be, it’s not a little farfetched that she would fall for this pretender. (Even when Knowles looks off her beat in a scene, she consistently outclasses Gooding.)
For all the preposterousness of the premise and the outcome, The Fighting Temptations lumbers through the motions, beginning with the “hilarious” bad auditions montage, and including the barbeque, the Pepsi placements, and the rehearsals. That the choir ends up with some prodigious talents involved is the film’s saving grace. A prisoner from a nearby institution, Johnson (Montell Jordan), works his falsetto magic while wearing orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, alongside a couple of hiphoppers (T-Bone and Lil Zane), who turn “Down By The Riverside” into “Take It Down To The River.” Darrin also secures the services of local r&b singers Alma (Angie Stone), Bessie (Melba Moore), and jeez!, the O’Jays, working as barbers down the street and launching into “Loves Me Like a Rock” at the drop of a hat.
With all this going on, it’s no wonder that the film sags during the dialogue and plot points, and soars during the rousing production numbers (soundtrack courtesy of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), which are generally presented in their entirety. (This is save for the final competition, when the Blind Boys of Alabama and Mary Mary perform on stage for brief seconds, each inexplicably cut off so the camera can get back to some backstage shenanigans and inane plot sortings.) If only the rest of The Fighting Temptations would ease up on the cornball formula and ride with the “feeling” its characters are instructed not to “fight.” And if only, if only, Miss Lilly had more options.