The Fighting Temptations Movie Review
What happened to Cuba Gooding Jr., anyway? Everyone knows his career has taken a rather, shall we say, broad turn after his Jerry Maguire Oscar. But it didn't happen immediately. His roles in As Good As It Gets and What Dreams May Come weren't showstoppers, but you can see why he took them, working as he did with other talented actors and filmmakers. He did a movie with De Niro, too, remember? But what really sticks in the memory is a string of recent, bottom-drawer comedies: Rat Race, Snow Dogs, Boat Trip. Listen to how those names form an odd aural trilogy of implied crappiness. Post-Temptations, he will play a mentally challenged fellow in Radio. I can't help but think of Eddie Murphy's line in Bowfinger: "Find me a part as a retarded slave, then I'll get my Oscar."
I also can't help but think of Eddie Murphy because, mixed as his comedy track record has been lately, he still brings the laughs more often than Gooding. This is probably because Cuba Gooding is not, in fact, a comedian. As far as I can tell, he isn't even much of a comic actor. He bugs his eyes, does incredulous double-takes, and gestures broadly, a walking guide to bad comedy. Worse, these quasi-comic tics infect his "real" acting, too. In Temptations, Gooding is supposedly playing a fast-talking huckster, always trying to stay one step ahead, hoping for a big payoff. This is the type of movie, of course, that believes in the redemption of this type of character, and so Gooding is given opportunity to overplay twice: At comedy, and at pathos. Eddie Murphy or Orlando Jones could make a con man into a hero; Cuba Gooding Jr. feels like he's faking even con-man status. Every expression, every movement of his here is sitcom-ready, as if the people in the back of the room won't see him unless he's mugging big. Maybe he was funny in Jerry Maguire because he didn't chase laughs (or approval) so nakedly.
The thing is, the rest of the movie isn't half bad -- cliched and sloppy, even cheap-looking (including a prodigious helping of fake backgrounds; the movie was obviously shot largely on a soundstage, and blue-screens labor unsuccessfully to suggest otherwise)--but pleasant, and often funny. The creaky premise finds Gooding called home to Georgia when his aunt passes away, leaving him $150,000 worth of stock... if he directs the broken-down church choir into some kind of gospel playoffs (I kept waiting to hear it described as "the world series of gospel", but, alas). Gooding recruits the usual pastiche of locals (a few barbers), eccentrics (a keyboard-playing alcoholic white dude; some prisoners), and the token one huge talent (Beyoncé Knowles). There's also Rue McClanahan, following Betty White into the African-American/Golden Girls outreach program. In the greatest burst of punspiration since Will Hunting's mom, Gooding names his motley crew the Fighting Temptations.
Director Jonathan Lynn is one of those comedy pinch-hitters who scores a lot of singles and doubles (The Whole Nine Yards, Sgt. Bilko) but rarely home-runs. (Although I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I like his My Cousin Vinny, not to mention his big-screen version of Clue.) He continues in his typical vein here. The comedy is full of pauses, like a sitcom, and few, if any, of its scenes really build to anything. But there are laughs, especially from Mike Epps, having a lot of fun in the sleazy sidekick role; his mini-monologue on varieties of Southern booty is both weirdly out of place and weirdly inspired. The musical numbers are frequent and usually fun, particularly the barbers performing an off-the-cuff "Loves Me Like a Rock" with scissors and razors as their instruments, and a hilarious gospel-rap featuring a prisoner with Eminem-like flow.
And then there's Beyoncé. Her singing is fine, and the movie seems genuinely interested in her as an ensemble player, rather than an all-out soloist. Which is not to say she doesn't have a few numbers to herself. She's still Beyoncé, but she blends, sort of. Knowles is serene, relaxed and confident here, but I hope she takes on something more challenging next time -- a few more of these passive-saint roles, and she could get stuck as a singer-slash-actress. It's too early to tell whether she can convincingly drop the singer-slash, but she's a lot more fun as Foxy Cleopatra in Goldmember.
So the movie shambles amicably toward the inevitable gospel throwdown, outcome never in doubt (I would've liked to see more of the other groups in competition, if only to confirm my suspicion that the Fighting Temptations beat out B-team choirs featuring team-ups like Kelly Rowland and Bea Arthur). As enjoyable as some of this is, I found myself struggling with a paradox: The very element that supposedly renders this more theatrical feature than made-for-UPN movie (Gooding) is the one thing that prevents it from really taking off. I wish Gooding no ill will; I just think he'd be better off in a movie with more focus. Besides, it's probably hard to concentrate on planting a convincing kiss on Beyoncé without fearing that Jay-Z will materialize and beat the living shit out of you. Gooding's still young, with talent to burn; it's just that his skills as a comedian don't look flammable.
The DVD offers eight extended musical numbers (I wasn't able to take any more gospel music, unfortunately) and seven extended scenes. Now that's bootylicious!
That's not much of a fight.