There's a fair bit of Soul Men that's completely familiar: two grumpy old men grouse and grumble at each other during an eventful cross-country road trip where they encounter flat tires, sexy senior ladies, and thugs. Something heartwarming happens. Viagra happens. The money runs out. There are brushes with the law.
The familiarity of the plot elements aside, there's a lot of pleasure to be had in the profane company of Floyd Henderson (the late Bernie Mac, in his last movie role) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson), two foul-mouthed, has-been back-up singers once known as the Real Deal. When their former frontman Marcus Hooks (John Legend) dies, Floyd and Louis are reunited for a tribute performance. Floyd, bored out of his mind since being dumped in a retirement community by his nephew, is desperate to get back on stage. Louis, who has fallen on hard times, is content to stay in the hole he's dug for himself. They're an odd couple, and they've got a week to get from L.A. to the Apollo Theater, so they climb into Floyd's sweet ride, a vintage lime green Cadillac Eldorado ragtop, and head for New York.
Soul Men is a loose and ambling, sharp-tongued comedy starring two performers with a well-known capacity to invest blue dialogue with nuance, meaning, emotion, soul, and even poetry. Since Floyd and Louis share a mutual and justified animus for each other, there's a lot of yelling and swearing in Soul Men, and the volatile duo demonstrate that there's a kind of music in a targeted and well-articulated string of F bombs. The plot -- which supplies a number of stock characters, including a pudgy, nerdy white fanboy (Adam Herschman) and a dopey, cowardly rapper (Affion Crockett) -- is merely a vehicle for allowing Jackson and Mac to loosen up and let fly, which is precisely what they do, and which is also the primary reason the movie is as enjoyable as it is. Much of the dialogue comes across as off the cuff and obscenity-enhanced, as if director Malcolm D. Lee just turned the cameras on and let them roll in case anything happened. It happened.
Floyd and Louis don't just talk -- they also sing (and it is clearly, obviously Mac and Jackson singing). They may swear better than they sing, but one of the other delights of Soul Men is the movie's celebration and good-natured ribbing of musical idioms, and its meticulous ear (and eye) for the good, the bad, and the silly of 60s and 70s R&B. The Real Deal were Pips-like backup singers who danced and cooed and snapped their fingers in synch. As Floyd and Louis make their way across America, they hone their R&B musical stylings in an assortment of dives (where they can also pick up a free meal), wearing an assortment of matching suits. The retro-soul music of the movie sounds and feels completely authentic, even when it's being played by the house band in a country western bar. (The late Isaac Hayes also appears in Soul Men, adding more period authenticity to the movie, but also enhancing its bittersweetness.) Floyd and Louis are decidedly out of synch when they reunite, and the movie is primarily about how they get their groove back. It is lucky for Soul Men that its performers can lay down a groove so well themselves.