When it's about Mac and Samuel L. Jackson, co-starring as former band mates bickering over decades of pent-up resentments, "Soul Men" has a fiercely raunchy, buoyant energy about it. Trouble is, the movie from director Malcolm Lee ("Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins") and screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone crams in myriad needless subplots - ostensibly to provide padding, which only draws attention to how thin the original story really is.
Mac and Jackson, who were longtime friends off-screen, bounce off each other with expert timing and equally matched, wild-eyed volatility, and when they're on, the movie is on. Mac's Floyd Henderson and Jackson's Louis Hinds were one-time backup singers to Marcus Hooks (John Legend), and the three were a popular Motown-style group until Marcus took off on his own for solo stardom.
Louis and Floyd stuck it out as a duo through the 1970s until record sales dropped and they fell in love with the same woman, which tore them apart. Floyd went on to a successful car wash business, which he's turned over to his nephew in favor of retirement; Louis, meanwhile, amassed a criminal record, read tons of philosophy during his time behind bars and now lives in squalor.
With the announcement of Marcus' death, the two must reunite for a tribute concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and the first time they see each other again at Louis' Los Angeles hovel crackles with witty, verbose anger. (It's probably the only great scene the movie has to offer.) Naturally, they must travel across the country in a bright green, 1971 Cadillac El Dorado - the same kind of car that belonged to Isaac Hayes, who has a cameo as himself and who died the day after Mac - because flying wouldn't eat up enough time.
The road trip also allows them to dust off their act (and their wardrobes) at various gigs along the way - Flagstaff, Ariz.; Amarillo, Texas - and spar some more. The duo seem to be having a goofy good time harmonizing and busting out their old-school dance moves, and the fact that they can't really sing all that well makes the performances amusingly self-effacing.
And yet, just when "Soul Men" generates some good will, it undermines itself with lame, hackneyed old-man gags involving prostate exams, hip replacement surgery and Viagra. (The usually reliable Jennifer Coolidge shows up as a randy groupie for one uncomfortably unfunny sex scene.) It's also riddled with nagging inconsistencies: Floyd squeezes into his powder-blue, polyester tux jacket for the first time in years, then promptly splits the back of it when he reaches forward to open the hotel-room door. The very next scene, he spins around on stage and voila! It's perfect again. No makeshift stitching, no safety pins holding it together. Not a huge deal, but it does take the punch out of the joke we just saw.
Along the way, Floyd and Louis also conveniently run into Cleo (the beautiful Sharon Leal, who replaced Effie in "Dreamgirls"), the grown-up daughter of Odetta, the woman they both loved. This sets up a paternity mystery that's pretty easy to figure out from the start. It also forces us to endure Cleo's ghetto-thug, rapper-wannabe boyfriend, Lester (Affion Crockett), who's nothing but an obnoxious stereotype.
Mac was above such lowest-common-denominator humor - and he was, and Jackson is, above the knockdown, drag-out fight in which they unfortunately find themselves in Memphis.
"Soul Men," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for pervasive language, and sexual content including nudity. Running time: 103 minutes. Two stars out of four.