The fish-out-of-water genre has been good to director Jonathan Lynn in the past, having made 1992's "My Cousin Vinny"one of the best and smartest comedies of that decadeand 2000's "The Whole Nine Yards." With a solid comedic script, Lynn is a master of setting up jokes and making them work splendidly, all the while creating winning, believable characters. Because the screenplay (credited to Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson) for "The Fighting Temptations" is not in the same league, wasting undeniable comic potential with insipid, watered-down writing and characterizations, even director Lynn cannot make it work.
When his estranged Aunt Sally Walker (Ann Nesby) passes away, New York junior ad executive Darrin Hill (Cuba Gooding Jr.) finds himself traveling back to the small southern town he and his mother (Faith Evans) were driven away from as a child because of her "sinful" lounge singing act. Darrin plans to only stay for his aunt's funeral, but when, in her will, she hands over the reigns to him for her church's gospel choir (and a "Gospel Explosion" competition that could earn him $150,000), he decides to stay and fulfill her wishes. With a dwindling choir, most of whom are amateur singers, Darrin enlists childhood sweetheart and single mother Lilly (Beyonce Knowles), a talented lounge singer herself, to aid the group to victory.
"The Fighting Temptations" can easily be split into two halvesthe gospel musical numbers and the dialogue-driven scenes. The former is soulful, rapturously performed, and entertaining. The latter is half-baked and unconvincing. One of the more predictable motion pictures in some time, every last plot development can be telegraphed so far in advance that to be surprised at any point would mean that this is likely the first movie you've ever seen. None of this would matter, of course, if not for its marred opportunities in evoking laughs or magnetism. Save for a handful of good passing comic moments (the local trash-talking DJ, played with flair by Steve Harvey, and Aunt Sally Walker's funeral procession garner the bulk of them), the film is certainly no "Sister Act," which it is largely reminiscent of.
The burgeoning romance between Darrin and Lilly, a church outcast herself for having a child out of wedlock, is strictly by-the-numbers, not helped by singer-actress Beyonce Knowles' (2002's "Austin Powers in Goldmember
") clumsy, half-hearted line deliveries. Knowles has a gorgeous voice and knows how to play a room while singing (her rendition of "Fever" is particularly energetic), but when she steps off the stage and must develop a character and interact with her co-stars, her lack of thespian training shines through. On the basis of Knowles' acting work thus far, fellow Destiny's Child member Kelly Rowland (2003's "Freddy vs. Jason
") is infinitely more natural in front of the camera.
For Cuba Gooding Jr. (2003's "Boat Trip
"), this is just another entry to add to his quickly growing list of mediocre efforts. Gooding Jr. has a gift for comedy (look no further than his Oscar-winning part in 1996's "Jerry Maguire"), but he doesn't have a gift for picking scripts that show off what he obviously has to offer. Filling the members of his choir are LaTanya Washington, LaTanya Richardson, Melba Moore, Angie Stone (2002's "The Hot Chick
"), T-Bone, Dave Sheridan (2001's "Corky Romano
"), and "Golden Girls" star Rue McClanahan, all of whom have nothing to work with other than the music they are singing.
With a running time over two hours, "The Fighting Temptations" protracts the inevitable outcome of the story to ridiculous lengths. Had the comedy been brighter and the forward momentum of the narrative not so subdued, then all would be well. As is, the film remains bearablebarelythanks solely to its toe-tapping music. Since you can get the same effect by buying the soundtrack album, there is no need to endure the tiresome shenanigans that surround the songs in "The Fighting Temptations."