Soul Man (1986) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual humor, some drug use, and language
Running time: 104 min.
Cast: C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, Arye Gross, James Earl Jones, Melora Hardin, Leslie Nielsen, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Linda Hoy, Ann Walker, James B. Sikking, Max Wright, Maree Cheatham, Ron Reagan, Jeff Altman, M.C. Gainey (cameo)
Director: Steve Miner
Screenplay: Carol Black
Review published July 1, 2007
I'm not even going to get into the fact that Soul Man, while trying to champion racial equality, ends up dishing out an inordinate amount of stereotypes against Black people. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt that it meant no malice in this regard, although I'll admit that some of the humor may cross the "good taste" line on occasion with viewers more sensitive to such politically incorrect material. Actually, as far as off-color comedies go, Soul Man's smart-ass attitude and energy makes it a fairly decent example of the appeal of 1980s teen comedies, even if it crashes and burns as it nears the end.
C. Thomas Howell (The Hitcher, Secret Admirer) plays Mark Watson, a graduating high school senior who has the brains and determination to get into Harvard. Trouble is, his well-to-do daddy decides that now's the time for Mark to learn maturity, telling him to pay his own way. Unable to get scholarship, a loan or to figure out how to make quick cash, Mark gets desperate, and applies to a scholarship exclusively meant for African-Americans. He gets it, but that means they will be expecting a Black student. With the help of a biochemist friend's experimental tanning pills, Mark turns his skin darker and becomes Black, at least on the outside. However, Mark learns that life isn't as easy for Black people as on "The Cosby Show", and further complicates his life when he begins to fall head over heels for a fellow Black student, a single mother named Sarah (Chong, American Flyers), from whom he took her scholarship money away.
Where the film eventually goes astray is when the screenplay by Carol Black ("Growing Pains", "The Wonder Years") starts spewing forth scene after scene of well-intentioned, but completely patronizing material on how Mark shouldn't be punished for pretending to be Black because he learned that it isn't as fun as he thinks it is. He's made a mockery of his Black professor (Jones, Return of the Jedi), he's lied repeatedly to the woman he claims to have great feelings for, and has completely undermined the vaunted institution that is about to give him a law degree, despite the fact that he's a cheater, liar, and probably criminal himself. Sorry, as much as Howell puts on his mope face at the end, he's just never remotely anguished enough to seem adequately remorseful for the embarrassment he's wrought on everyone he knows and loves.
Soul Man traverses these murky waters precisely to provide the opportunity to play up the racial humor for the first hour plus. Like Mark, the makers of the film think they can get away with it as long as they promise to do good things from here on out in atonement. However, no one wants to see pity or grandstanding on equality in the middle of their dumb racial comedy anyway, so by trying to go the noble route in the end, both elements tend to cancel each other out. They offer up a romance to try to bridge the two worlds, but that effort is a complete waste, as sparks never remotely come close to flying.
Soul Man has a good smarmy performance by C. Thomas Howell in the lead role, although it must be said that at no time does he ever not look like a white guy who fell asleep for a few days in a tanning booth. It's not without laughs, but the payload is delivered with such high overhead, the expense of every chuckle is paid twice-fold by having to endure overt preaching that doesn't really feel all that genuinely heartfelt. Soul Man might have Soul, if it weren't so vacuously soulless, and it might even be accused of leaving a too-sour aftertaste, if it weren't so consummately tasteless.
©2007 Vince Leo