By Roger Moore
We know we’ve lost Bernie Mac. And it takes only about 10 minutes of his next-to-last screen appearance, “Soul Men,” to show us just what we’ve lost.
Nobody could go bug-eye to bug-eye, toe to toe and “mofo” to “mofo” with the great Samuel L. Jackson like Bernie Mac. The only man who could hold a candle to the great Samuel L. in getting laughs out of simple, loud, profanity is gone.
“Soul Men” is a shaggy, indifferently directed road comedy that benefits from inspired casting — pairing Jackson with Mac as two has-been soul singers — and a sad afterglow. Mac died this past winter at 50, and the film ends with a tribute to the man and the mouth.
Mac is Floyd Henderson, one third of The Real Deal, a soul trio from the ’60s and ’70s, the golden age of the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Floyd retired from music and built a lucrative carwash empire. Now, he’s been put out to pasture from that too.
Louis Hinds (Jackson) was the other singing-and-stepping backup singer in The Real Deal. He took a different route to retirement — bank robbery, prison time, a job in a garage.
When Marcus Hooks, the lead singer who dumped the lads from Marcus Hooks and The Real Deal, dies, Floyd is summoned to perform at the funeral. He senses “comeback.” First, he’s got to lure Louis back. And there’s bad blood for them to get over.
“I ain’t trying to be like 30 years ago,” Louis gripes. But there’s money involved, so they pile into the “Muthaship” (a lime green ’70s Cadillac El Dorado) and set out cross-country, doing just enough gigs to grind the rust off, grab a few groupies (Jennifer Coolidge of “American Pie”) and visit an old flame’s daughter (Sharon Leal).
The road pitfalls are “Blues Brothers” standard issue — run-ins with cops, rappers (Affion Crockett, very funny) and a gullible intern from their record company (Adam Hersch- man in a gigantic ’fro). But the moments onstage are a stitch. The “singers,” in their real voices, start out rough and get better with each passing stop. Their repertoire — soul standards such as “I’m Your Puppet.”
Director Malcolm D. Lee (”Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”) lets the stars do their thing, edits to hide the fact they can’t do their own stunts (badly) and to hide lack of dance moves. The dialogue is mostly exchanged threats — “I’ll kill you disco dead!” The gags, mostly “old guy” jokes, “too tight costumes” cracks.
But Jackson and Mac click. They’re perfectly believable as “funk comrades” from back in the day, polyester princes reduced to asking for the AARP discount when they hit hotels they once trashed in the best rock-star tradition.
And if the finale adds a taste of the bittersweet on this weekend of Bernie (he’s in “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” too), that’s OK. At least he got one decent showcase (he has one more film in the can) before bugging out for the last time.