In yet another variation on the shopworn road picture in which two mismatched former buddies are forced to cross the country together Soul Men’s uneasy brand of overly broad humor and contrived situations is saved intermittently by some cool musical numbers. But alas it’s not enough. Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd (Bernie Mac) are part of a major musical group led by Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who goes solo leaving Floyd and Louis in the lurch. Fast forward 20 years Hooks has died and Louis and Floyd who did not end on good terms and have not spoken since have been coerced into appearing a tribute show for Hooks at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre. Afraid to fly they get in Floyd’s 1971 Cadillac El Dorado accompanied by a talented young woman (Sharon Leal) who may be Floyd’s daughter. Along the way they try to get their act up to speed by appearing in various redneck honky tonks filling the interminable 103-minute running time with a lot of unfunny sexual encounters and unbelievable situations. The late Bernie Mac was a terrific comic talent and is highly wasted in this mishmash in which he is constantly encouraged to mug for laughs. Mac is so much better than the lowbrow material he has to work with here that it’s a shame this film should stand as one of his last (at least there’s Madagascar 2). Faring even worse however is Samuel L. Jackson who is out of his element in a musical comedy and seems to be taking none of this hokum seriously. Thankfully the soulful musical numbers reminiscent of classic ‘60s Sam and Dave R&B are well chosen and capably performed even though neither Mac nor Jackson are known for their singing. Best number in fact is fronted by John Legend making his acting debut as Hooks. As the young eager beaver manager trying to get Floyd and Louis back together Sean Hayes is way too broad. Faring better is newcomer Adam Herschman as Hayes’ mop-topped intern who uses his fanboy infatuation with the pair to nice advantage. And there’s a nice now bittersweet bit near the end with the late Isaac Hayes. Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins) is a director who tends to go for the slapstick when a little subtlety and believability would be more in order. With a great Sunshine Boys premise and some nifty musical material to pepper the proceedings Lee still manages to drop the ball letting his talented actors down and encouraging them to chew up every scene. The corny silly situations certainly doesn’t help matters with the road trip device feeling more like padding than anything else. Soul Men doesn’t find the right rhythms.
Wracked by guilt over what she believes is her responsibility for the tragic death of her mother -- and running away from a distant father (Paul Bettany) -- 14 year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) takes off with her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) and heads to the South Carolina home of the Boatwright sisters a place that holds many memories of her own mother’s childhood. She is immediately taken under their wing and bonds with August (Queen Latifah) the family matriarch who runs the enterprising bee farm on the property and teaches Lily the ways of the honey. There’s also the spirited June (Alicia Keys) a music teacher resisting the marriage proposals of the well-intentioned Neil (Nate Parker) and fragile and childlike May (Sophie Okonedo). In forging new relationships with these women a whole new world of self-esteem is slowly opened for Lily. For Dakota Fanning her performance in Bees marks a turning point into a new phase of her already impressive career and in Lily proves she is able to move effortlessly into strong teenage roles and more sophisticated material. She’s quite touching as a young Southern girl who comes of age with the help of some wonderful African-American women at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964. Hudson also proves she can move comfortably beyond her Oscar-winning powerhouse debut in Dreamgirls. In Rosaleen she gives voice to a young black woman who is determined to exercise her right to vote for the first time but at a price. Latifah is warm and commanding and the Queen bee of this clan and her scenes with Fanning are nicely toned. In an unusual cast with lots of singers-turned-actresses such as Hudson and Latifah Keys also shows smart acting instincts even if her interpretation of June is a little on the flat side. Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) is simply wonderful and touchingly understated as the shy inward May. You wish there was more with her. Among the men Bettany takes a one-dimensional role as the demanding father and gives it some light while Parker (The Great Debaters) and Tristan Wilds as August’ godson and Lily’s new friend are spot on. Gina Prince-Bythewood who directs and smartly adapted the popular Sue Monk Kidd novel does go for the sentiment inherent in an old-fashioned story of this kind. But she also thankfully doesn’t pour it on. She creates a world in the deep South that doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life for African-Americans but whose lives at least politically are right at a major turning point. Most of all though she nurtures some lovely performances and brings an ensemble cast together with ease and heart. Prince-Bythewood whose breakthrough feature was the entertaining sleeper hit Love and Basketball clearly knows how to bring out the best in her actors. Secret Life of Bees elicits laughter and tears in equal doses proving to be the kind of not obviously commercial but uplifting movie-going experience rarely seen these days.