Sam Jackson and Bernie Mac look positively pained when they squeeze into Pip-like suits and begin to sing. They do this more than once in Soul Men, playing Louis and Floyd, erstwhile backup singers for a ’60s-’70s superstar named Marcus Hooks (John Legend). An initial montagey look-back at their heyday shows they endure many styles of song and costume — soul, funk, black power-fro, George-Clintonesque space-man — leading to the film’s point of departure: Marcus is dead, which gives the backups a onetime chance to reunite in his honor, on stage at the Apollo.
Currently living in Los Angeles, they have a ways to go, a journey conveniently exacerbated by Louis’ refusal to fly. (Not to mention his reluctance to go at all: “What kind of person doesn’t have no land phone?” asks Floyd, forced to come in person to Louis’ underlit, cluttered apartment. “The kind of person who doesn’t wanna get no phone calls,” answers Louis.) As they embark on a road trip in car salesman Floyd’s limey green El Dorado, they’re bound to argue, make up, and argue some more, stopping occasionally for practice performances at cheesy highway motels. Nothing surprising ensues.
Though less broad in premise than, say, Walk Hard, Malcolm D. Lee’s movie begins its cliché array with those borrowed from music biopics. The fact that these guys sing Motown rather than CW or Beatles-lite changes the musical lingua franca (“I’m Your Puppet” rather than “Folsom Prison Blues” or “All My Loving”), but not the film’s basic shape. The men engage in familiar slapstick (eye-rolling, pratfalling), lots of name-calling, and antiquated sex jokes (a one-night stand with Jennifer Coolidge providing massive cleavage and an apparently uproarious toothless blow-job). No matter the occasion, the men repeatedly display their mutual resentment and competition, each instance a step to the inevitable reconciliation.
This last is also framed by a family story, as Floyd has them stop by the home of a fellow backup singer, a woman they both bedded and fought over (“Thou shalt not dig for diamonds in another man’s mine”). Though she’s deceased, she’s left behind a daughter, Cleo (Sharon Leal), who answers the door in the waitress uniform that marks her vulnerability to the chance for escape they will offer. That, and, her live-in rapper-drug-dealer boyfriend Lester (Affron Crockett), fond of wife-beaters, low-hanging jeans, and guns, his look and aspirations borrowed from/spoofing Hustle and Flow. He provides Floyd and Lester with the chance to opine on gangsta rap and sampling (especially when one of Floyd’s baselines turns up on a track Lester and his puffy crew are recording in their egg-carton-lined studio).
When Floyd and Louis discover Lester’s not only living off Cleo’s hard work but also hitting her, they play gallant, beating down the villain more than once, and so earning his endless vengefulness (“I’m gonna learn karate and kick your ass!”). This plot point extends the possibilities for two generic modes. First, violence-as-comedy, in which Lester suddenly reappears, literally popping up in the frame with stitched-up face and one of those casts that prop up his arm in perpetual zombie mode, underlines his function as a not especially funny Foghorn Leghorn. And second, the blandest sort of domestic melodrama: Cleo not only seeks a father figure, but can sing too, so the hugging and kissing becomes hear-warming spectacle.
While it’s surely moving to see the closing credits tribute to the much-missed Bernie Mac (and a briefer nod to Isaac Hayes, who shows up at the Apollo for a couple of minutes, as himself), the route to that end is protracted, hackneyed, and — for all its frantic motion — sluggish.