Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
The Fighting Temptations
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyoncé Knowles. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Written by Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson. Rated PG-13.
Can I Get an Amen?

Hallelujah! Cuba Gooding Jr. and gospel music redeem The Fighting Temptations.


How great is it to see Cuba Gooding Jr. in a movie that knows how to use him? In Jerry Maguire and even As Good As It Gets, his lightness and exuberance were completely joyous to watch. Since then, however, his attempts at being a serious actor (Instinct, Men of Honor) have been merely irrelevant, while his appearances in Snow Dogs and Boat Trip were downright grotesque. His performance in The Fighting Temptations reminds us why he became a star. He plays Darrin Hill, a shiftless ad executive (he’s such a sellout that he shills for malt liquor companies) who returns to the small town in Georgia where he grew up. He goes to attend his aunt’s funeral and subsequently finds out she’s left him a lot of money on the condition that he rebuild the church choir. The movie has Darrin leading the choir for many musical numbers, and it gives Gooding many occasions to gesticulate wildly. The star seizes his chance, running around like a man possessed by the Holy Spirit, exhorting audiences and choral singers alike to give everything they have, and at one point demonstrating that he can still turn a backflip in his mid-thirties. The other cast members do all the singing, but his dynamic presence seems to galvanize them and give the film its energy.

He gets help from Jonathan Lynn, an English director who likes small-town America and has made a Hollywood career building versions of it that are more colorful than the real thing. Lynn stuffs the film with incidental gags, like the banner hanging 500 yards in front of an overpass that reads “If you hit this sign, you will hit that bridge.” He also gives the tiniest roles rewarding bits of comic business. This democratic approach generates so much goodwill that even Mike Epps is halfway tolerable as the town’s player.

It’s too bad that the romance between Darrin and a local R&B singer exiled from the church (Beyoncé Knowles) is a nonstarter. Knowles, who did well impersonating a blaxploitation heroine in the last Austin Powers film, proves she’s no good at playing an actual character. Also, you wish Lynn had used the comic types in this movie as inventively as he did in his best film, 1992’s My Cousin Vinny.

Who cares about any of that stuff, though, when there’s so much great music to savor? Knowles provides an attractive voice in “He Still Loves Me” and “Time to Come Home,” but she’s outstripped by the many gospel veterans in the cast. Ann Nesby sings a ferocious “I’m Getting Ready,” and her collaboration with Rev. Shirley Caesar in “The Stone” is enough to tear the roof off the movie theater. The O’Jays provide a pleasing doo-wop perspective on gospel in “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and the group’s Eddie Levert Sr. teams with Angie Stone in a fearsome rendition of “Rain Down.” The movie also reaches out to the younger crowd with an unexpected and thrilling burst of hip-hop in “To da River,” with T-Bone and Zane spraying rhymes like machine-gun fire, backed by Montell Jordan (who also turns in a nice comic performance as a singing convict with a falsetto voice). All this electrifying music is enough to make even a hardened atheist praise the Lord.

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