If there's one thing I'm going to miss about Bernie Mac, it's the way he made an art out of being profoundly profane. Not since Richard Pryor in his stand-up heyday has a performer made cursing such a beautiful thing. To quote a line or two from Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story": "He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master."
You'll certainly be reminded of that in "Soul Men," his next-to-last final performance on-screen. (Apart from voicing a character in this week's "Madagascar 2," he'll appear with Robin Williams and John Travolta in "Old Dogs" next year.) Anybody looking for the sweet, curmudgeonly caretaker of "those doggone kids" from his sitcom, "The Bernie Mac Show," will be shocked to find him back in his "Original Kings of Comedy" swing of things: smooth, dapper, and ready to cuss anybody out.
Mac is Floyd Henderson, a former R&B superstar officially entering the elderly years of his life. While languishing in retirement-community hell, news breaks that his one-time, more successful partner-in-soul (played by actual R&B singer John Legend) passed away and his band mates, "The Real Deal," are needed to perform at his funeral at Harlem's Apollo Theater. This means Floyd has to track down the third, more bitter member of the group, ex-junkie ex-con Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson), so they can hit the road and prepare for their big performance.
Despite the retro-soulful sheen director Malcolm D. Lee ("Undercover Brother") coats on this flick -- even throwing in cameos from Millie Jackson and the late Isaac Hayes (who died the same weekend Mac did) -- "Soul Men" should really be called "Grumpy Old Black Men." Jackson and Mac's characters mostly bicker their way through a road trip, bringing up unsettled grudges while wheezing and limping their way through each gig. The lightweight, randy-yet-sappy script, which screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone ("Intolerable Cruelty") pack with enough Viagra shtick to make Jay Leno envious, seems barely worth either of the lead actors' time. So, it's no surprise that the movie's funniest moments come from Mac and Jackson just cursing each other out for scenes on end. (While Jackson still remains the most aggressively foul-mouthed thespian working today, he's still no match for Mac and his spastic, face-contorting tirades.)
When you think about it, all Lee had to do was just plant a camera on Mac entertaining an audience (which he thankfully does in a tribute coda during the end credits), and that would've been consistently funny by itself. Mac never had the chance to do the solo, filmed stand-up concert his other "Kings of Comedy" brethren did over the years. "Soul Men" sadly reminds us that we'll never see Bernie Mac truly in his element. Thankfully, the movie gives us a handful of moments of Mac at his four-letter best.