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A good news gospel in 'Fighting Temptations'

September 19, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"The Fighting Temptations" is a rousing, warmhearted comedy, as infectious as the gospel music it celebrates. Cuba Gooding Jr. and pop superstar Beyonce Knowles lead a large, entertaining cast in a film abundant with feel-good pleasures.

Gooding's Darrin Hill is a Manhattan ad agency hotshot on an upward curve when shot down by his boss, who has discovered that his academic and professional background is fictitious. With Darrin's dismissal comes word that his great-aunt Sally has died. He takes the first train to his hometown, Monte Carlo, Ga., which he almost certainly would not have done had he not been fired.

In 1980, when Darrin was a grade school boy, his beautiful and talented mother (Faith Evans), a Vietnam War widow, had been drummed out of the Beulah Baptist Church choir for singing in a nightclub frequented by "sinners" and for recording a song called (gasp!) "Do It to Me Again." She took Darrin by the hand, caught the next bus for Chicago and launched a respectable career as a disco-era singer in the Donna Summer mold, but she was killed in a hit-and-run accident. At loose ends and dodging creditors, Darrin decides to pay his respects to the great-aunt he hadn't written to in 20 years.

What he expects to be a quick stop becomes extended with the reading of Sally's will, which leaves him $150,000 -- provided he directs the Beulah choir to victory in the Gospel Explosion, to be held in six weeks. Never mind that he has no experience; he feels he has a chance of winning once he discovers that his childhood playmate Lilly has grown up to be a sensationally beautiful and gifted singer (Knowles) playing at a local club. Alas, as a single mother, she too has been drummed out of the Beulah choir, by the same bossy, judgmental woman (LaTanya Richardson) who drove Darrin's mother away. Darrin's brash manner doesn't help.

This is a lot of prologue, and at 118 minutes "The Fighting Temptations" runs long for a comedy. But writers Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson and director Jonathan Lynn know audiences will assume that they're not going to be sent home sad, so they take leisurely pleasure in getting there. This allows time for Darrin to undergo a reasonably credible transformation and for a potential romance with Lilly to develop but above all for lots of hilarity in Darrin's struggle to assemble an effective but highly unusual choir.

From the kernel of the Beulah choir emerges the Fighting Temptations, featuring two Beulah regulars (Melba Moore and Rue McClanahan) augmented by stalwarts not only of gospel but also of rhythm and blues and hip-hop, spotlighting the likes of Angie Stone, the O'Jays, Montell Jordan, T-Bone and Zane. Also in the casually interracial choir is David Sheridan (of "Corky Romano"), and at the keyboard is Mickey Jones, former Bob Dylan drummer and alumnus of the New Christy Minstrels as well as the First Edition with Kenny Rogers.

There are special appearances by the Rev. Shirley Caesar, Ann Nesby, Mary Mary, Ramiyah, Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Contributing substantially to the film's comedy along with Richardson are Mike Epps as Darrin's randy Uncle Lucas and Steve Harvey as a comically laid-back local DJ.

There's a lot to take in, but all of it is good fun, served up with a kind wisdom that gives the film an endearing substance. Knowles is a natural as an actress, and this film shows she has another world in entertainment to conquer. It is an ebullient yet sensitive Gooding, however, who carries the film, with a deceptively nonchalant appeal.


'The Fighting Temptations'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual references.

Times guidelines: Some crude but innocuous sexual humor.

Cuba Gooding Jr....Darrin Hill

Beyonce Knowles...Lilly

Mike Epps...Uncle Lucius

LaTanya Richardson...Paulina Pritchett

Steve Harvey...Miles Smoke

A Paramount Pictures presentation of an MTV Films production in association with Handprint Films. Director Jonathan Lynn. Producers David Gale, Loretha Jones, Jeff Pollack. Executive producers Van Toffler, Benny Medina. Screenplay by Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson from a story by Hunter. Cinematographer Alfonso Beato. Editor Paul Hirsch. Music Jimmy Ham, Terry Lewis and James (Big Jim) Wright. Musical supervisor Spring Aspers. Choreographers Eartha D. Robinson, Shawnette Heard. Costumes Mary Jane Fort, Tracey A. White. Production designer Victoria Paul. Art director Cathryne Bangs. Set designer Charles Vassar. Set decorator Diana Stoughton. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

In general release.

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