Dir: Jonathan Lynn. US. 2003. 116 mins.
Pop diva Beyonce Knowles and an all-star gospel/R&B soundtrack are the main attractions of The Fighting Temptations, a pleasant but formulaic ensemble comedy from MTV Films that teams the singer with Cuba Gooding Jr and British ex-pat director Jonathan Lynn. With Beyonce's recent solo album and single still riding high in charts on both sides of the Atlantic, the film should be capable of decent openings in the US (where Paramount will release this weekend) and (through UIP) some international markets, with audiences including both younger music fans and families. In the US, black moviegoers will give the film an additional boost. The gospel theme, meanwhile, will probably sell some extra domestic tickets, but it might prove something of a liability in international territories.
The script, by Elizabeth Hunter (ER) and Saladin K Patterson (Undercover Brother), follows a very familiar course (though it's the kind of familiarity that has helped make hits out of similarly plotted movies from The Bad News Bears to Sister Act to Daddy Day Care). Gooding's Darrin Hill is a slick young advertising executive who has just lost his Madison Avenue job and is hiding from bill collectors. Called to his tiny Southern hometown, Darrin learns that an aunt has left him $150,000 - but he only gets the inheritance if he can lead the town's ragtag church choir to victory in a big gospel competition. Darrin reluctantly takes on the task and sets out to persuade Lilly (Knowles), a single-mother jazz singer considered a slut by church regulars, to join the choir.
The rest of the plot unfolds much as you would expect, though the writers do manage to add a few twists to the formula and to deliver a couple of genuinely affecting moments as the initially cynical Darrin begins to rediscover his roots and his humanity. Gooding and Knowles don't have much chemistry, however, and the obligatory romance never convinces.
Comedy expert Lynn (My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards) engineers some funny gags early on, but the frequency of the laughs decreases as the film progresses and the comedy comes to rely a bit too often on the misfit make-up of the slowly growing choir (some of whose members are played by real life gospel and R&B stars including Faith Evans, Angie Stone, The O'Jays and Montell Jordan).
The film's musical numbers are sometimes integrated into the story, sometimes played largely for laughs and sometimes staged more like the set-pieces of a fully-fledged musical (which The Fighting Temptations is not). The staged numbers work best, the standouts being a rousing performance from traditional gospel singer the Rev Shirley Caesar and Beyonce's jazzy nightclub rendition of standard Fever. There are also performances from traditional and contemporary gospel artists Ann Nesby, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Yolanda Adams. (Many of the songs are included on a soundtrack album whose promotion will feed into the film's own marketing push.)
Knowles' role is considerably more demanding than her first movie part - in Austin Powers in Goldmember - and calls for an earthier persona than her usual pop image. Her acting is still a little stilted but she has a presence that carries her through the important scenes. Gooding is relatively subdued, only letting his wild physical energy come through for the big musical numbers. Epps (from All About the Benjamins and Friday After Next) does a nice turn as the town lothario and comic Harvey (The Original Kings of Comedy) has a couple of funny moments as the amateurish local DJ.
Prod cos: MTV Films, Handprint Films
US dist: Paramount Pictures
Int'l dist: UIP
Prods: David Gale, Loretha Jones, Jeff Pollack
Exec prods: Van Toffler, Benny Medina
Scr: Elizabeth Hunter, Saladin K Patterson
Cinematography: Affonso Beatto
Prod des: Victoria Paul
Ed: Paul Hirsch
Music: Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, James 'Big Jim' Wright
Main cast: Cuba Gooding Jr, Beyonce Knowles, Mike Epps, LaTanya Richardson, Steve Harvey