You may feel a sense of deja vu watching Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s new movie. In “Snow Dogs,” you’ll recall, he played a Miami dentist who went to Alaska in search of an inheritance; of course he found a better life (and a loving woman) there, along with a bunch of braying dogs that he had to turn into a winning sled team. Now in “The Fighting Temptations” he’s Darrin Hill, a fellow who goes home to his native Georgia in search of an inheritance. In this picture, though, he’s a guy even more in need of redemption–a New York advertising exec just fired for lying on his resume and maxed out on his credit cards. His purpose is to take the money and run, but circumstances conspire to keep him down south longer than expected: he has to resurrect a past-its-prime church choir, whose victory in a statewide contest is the condition of his getting the cash promised in his late aunt’s will. In the process, he reconnects with his childhood sweetie Lilly (Beyonce Knowles), who just happens to have a kick-ass voice and becomes the group’s mainstay. And while we don’t want to spoil any surprises, if you can’t tell how things are going to turn out, you’ve probably never seen a movie before, and certainly not “Snow Dogs.”
“Temptations” isn’t exactly a xerox movie–it leans too heavily on the musical side of things for that, and there are no wintry scenes, sled hounds or grizzly James Coburns about–but it is familiar enough to come across as second-hand goods. And while it isn’t as dreadful as some of Gooding’s farces–“Rat Race” and “Boat Trip” spring immediately to mind–its dogged devotion to feel-good formula and penchant for shameless mugging–particularly from the star, though others are invited to contribute in that area, too–prove pretty tiresome over the long haul. Undemanding audiences may be willing to succumb to “Temptations,” but the more discerning will easily be able to resist.
That’s not only because the plot is so thin, but because director Jonathan Lynn never gauges the tempo properly, usually playing things too slackly but sometimes suddenly lurching into a slapstick frenzy, only to pull up again. Lynn has occasionally been able to juice up relatively weak scripts (“My Cousin Vinny,” “The Whole Nine Yards”), but more often he seems at a loss with them (“Clue,” “The Distinguished Gentleman,” “Greedy,” “Sgt. Bilko”), and certainly his Hollywood work has never matched the brilliance of his British television series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister.” And in this case the cast doesn’t offer much compensation. Gooding does his usual shtick, mugging ferociously and popping out his eyes for comic effect (he eventually does some of his dance gyrations, too); Knowles is less stilted that one might have expected, but she still is more singer than actress. Mike Epps and Steve Harvey show up in supporting roles, the former as a relative even more underhanded than Hill and the latter as a sharp-tongued radio announcer, but surprisingly neither generates many laughs; and LaTanya Richardson comes across like a refugee from “Sanford and Son” as the snooty church treasurer who becomes Darrin’s nemesis. The unlikely members of the choir, including Rue McClanahan and a weird fellow called Corny Dog (Dave Sheridan) as well as a whole variety of other odd recruits (including some convicts), deliver an occasional chuckle, but the scattershot approach of the script turns most of them into virtual extras. On the other hand, the musical interludes, ranging from hymns to rock and hip-hop, are engaging, and Knowles does a take on “Fever” that’s pretty steamy. Technically the picture gets by, that it has a rather flat, garish appearance.
In the final analysis what “The Fighting Temptations” may put you in mind of, more than anything else, is an episode of the old “Andy Griffith Show”–you know, one of those in which Gomer or a guest star showed up with a gorgeous singing voice to beat out Barney for the solo spot in the Mayberry chorus. It was a funnier idea back then, and at a mere half-hour, a lot less padded. Still, the songs turn up often enough, and are performed with sufficient zest (by the likes of Melba Moore, Shirley Caesar, Faith Evans, The O’Jays, Montell Jordan, T-Bone, Zane, Ann Nesby, Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, Donnie McLurkin, and the Blind Boys of Alabama–an eclectic assortment indeed) to lessen the discomfort of the lame comedy and the clumsy sentiment a bit. “Temptations” fights to be charming and doesn’t really succeed, but when it bursts into harmony it will at least take your mind off the threadbare material surrounding the tunes.