There's always a certain sense of melancholy in witnessing one of the last works of a great artist, especially when that artist never lived to see the finished product. Thankfully, Bernie Mac's penultimate feature is a soul movie with genuine heart, a crowd-pleasing comedy that leans more heavily toward laughs for the majority of the running time, yet still manages to draw the viewer in with a slightly more earnest subplot. The chemistry between headliners Mac and Samuel L. Jackson provides more than enough energy to sustain the good vibes straight through the final showstopper, with a special postscript serving to send the audience out with a warm smile.
In 1965, Marcus Hooks (John Legend), Floyd Henderson (Mac), and Louis Hinds (Jackson) were just three kids singing doo-wop harmonies around a fire barrel when legendary record producer Willie Mitchell caught an earful of their infectious harmonizing. Two short years later, Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal had signed to Hi Records, and they quickly became one of the most popular soul acts in America. But success can't last forever, and it wasn't long before Hooks decided to strike out on his own. Though Floyd and Lewis would do their best to keep the Real Deal going, scoring one breakout hit with "Walk in the Park," clashing egos and "creative differences" would eventually break the duo apart. Flash-forward to the new millennium, when Hooks has won a staggering total of 19 Grammy Awards while Floyd and Lewis languish in obscurity. Then, one day, while considering suicide with a mouthful of pills and a bottle of liquor, Floyd is shocked to see a news report that Hooks has suddenly dropped dead just before he was slated to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In order to celebrate Hooks' career, Hi Records has organized a lavish tribute concert at the Apollo Theater. Will Floyd and Lewis be able to put aside their differences long enough to drive cross-country and perform together on-stage one last time, or will lingering grudges ultimately cause the pair's already-tenuous relationship to implode long before they reach New York City?
As in any road movie, it's essential that the main players share a chemistry, so that the viewer won't mind staying with them as they share the same cramped car space from highway to byway -- and it couldn't be more fun watching Mac and Jackson bicker their way cross-country while stopping off at the occasional dive bar to brush up on their act. And though Soul Men works infectiously well as a sort of anti-buddy comedy during the first act, things get even better once they stop off to visit an old friend, and wind up with another passenger in the form of frustrated waitress Cleo (Sharon Leal). Not only does Cleo's presence help to elevate the story by providing a curious link to Floyd and Lewis' contentious past, but she might just be a sign of things to come as well. Leal easily holds her own opposite formidable talents Mac and Jackson, gradually coming out of her shell as she begins to hone her skills as a talented singer in her own right. Likewise, the soundtrack -- a satisfying mix of old-school hits, soulful new songs, and retro-fitted compositions for the fictional bands featured in the film -- goes a long way in keeping the fun vibes flowing throughout. Supporting roles are a bit of a mixed bag, as Affion Crockett comes off a bit too cartoonish in his early scenes as Cleo's abusive boyfriend to be considered an actual threat later on, and Adam Herschman veers a tad too far into Judah Friedlander territory as the record-label intern who goes to extraordinary lengths to accommodate his idols the Real Deal. It's a joy to watch soul legend Isaac Hayes in one of his final roles -- even if he doesn't have much to do here -- and a warm coda dedicated to both of the recently deceased Soul Men stars highlights just what a humble performer Mac was, and what a truly tragic loss it was to see him taken just as he was beginning to emerge as a talented leading man.