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'The Fighting Temptations'

Music saves the soul of 'The Fighting Temptations'

Friday, September 19, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In "Snow Dogs," Cuba Gooding Jr. played a sun-loving Miami dentist who learned he was adopted when summoned to Alaska, where his birth mother lived, for the reading of her will.

 
 

'The Fighting Temptations'

RATING: PG-13 for some sexual references

STARRING: Cuba Gooding Jr., Beyonce Knowles

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Lynn

   
 

In "The Fighting Temptations," Gooding plays a smooth operator whose resume-padding gets him fired from a New York ad agency and who is summoned to his tiny Georgia hometown for his great aunt's funeral and the reading of her will. It seems to hold the answer to his prayers: the chance to inherit $150,000 if he can get the Beulah Baptist Church choir to a regional gospel competition and bring home the top prize.

No problem, Gooding's character of Darrin Hill thinks, based on the robust renditions he has just witnessed. Well, turns out there are many roadblocks, starting with the fact that he heard a visiting choir, not the home tenor team, and that the member who covets the choir director's job is the same sanctimonious woman who drove his widowed mother out of town years before for singing in a "juke joint."

As with the countless movies about hapless sports teams whipped into shape by reluctant coaches, "Fighting Temptations" follows Darrin's effort to recruit and rehearse a choir, fend off the sabotage of church lady Paulina Pritchett (LaTanya Richardson) and, of course, persuade the town's best singer, Lilly (Beyonce Knowles), to return to the fold.

If the movie were as good as the soundtrack, it would be solid gold. The music, however, strikes all the right notes but the pedestrian plot hits the flat keys.

It soars with Beyonce, Melba Moore, the Rev. Shirley Caesar, Faith Evans, the O'Jays, T-Bone and the Blind Boys of Alabama, among others, and sinks with such lines as the one uttered by Lilly: "I can smell when a man is trying to use me, and mister, you stink."

We suspect that the choir will offer Darrin the chance at redemption, that he will have to fight Big Apple temptations, and that he and Lilly will flirt or do whatever a PG-13 rating will allow. And that Paulina, if justice prevails, will get her comeuppance. The dots pretty much get connected as anticipated, with a few (unlikely) surprises in choir-member recruitment along the way.

Gooding gets to be both restrained -- a nice change of pace for the likable actor whose recent movies include the aforementioned "Snow Dogs" and "Boat Trip" -- and exuberant, demonstrating the sort of Oscar-winning gymnastic gyrations he displayed in "Jerry Maguire." Beyonce, not forced to hide under a shapeless choir robe, doesn't exactly have to reinvent herself and does a better than expected job.

Mike Epps as pal Lucius, Steve Harvey as a disc jockey and Wendell Pierce as a minister nicely provide comic support. Too often, however, the characters feel like they, or we, are biding time until someone cues the church organist.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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