Not since Whoopi Goldberg hid out at the convent and started directing the choir in Sister Act has a movie taken such outright joy in its own artifice -- or in the foot-tapping conventions of a time-honored genre. With its Bob Fosse gloss and its glamour-queen production numbers, Chicago may have revived the very idea of the big-budget Hollywood musical, but this rather more modest effort proves to be just as much fun -- and a lot hipper. Never mind that the supposed star of the show is the vocally challenged Cuba Gooding Jr. (in a slump since Jerry Maguire); he hardly sings a note, choosing to jump and gyrate instead. He leaves the rest to Grammy winner Beyoncé Knowles and a perfectly tuned supporting cast that will likely continue to sell soundtrack CDs long after the movie itself has played out.
Screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter's plot is the usual featherweight trifle. After his rich aunt dies, a Manhattan ad exec named Darrin Hill (Gooding), who has a lot of screwups, falsehoods and unpaid credit-card bills on his resumé, returns to his scenic hometown (pretty little Montecarlo) for the funeral and the reading of the will. Darrin will inherit $150,000 worth of stock certificates, but there's a catch: First, he must become Beulah Baptist's new choir director and, in just six weeks, whip a handful of tone-deaf, dispirited charges into a singing juggernaut that can land a spot in an annual contest called the "Gospel Explosion." Walter Matthau had an easier job coaching the Bad News Bears.
Think Darrin can do it? And in the process, save his own wayward soul?
You betcha. Before the first cries of "Hallelujah!" have faded, he's knocking heads with the church's ill-tempered resident moralist, Paulina Pritchett (LaTanya Richardson); trying to reclaim the affections of his childhood sweetheart, Lilly (the sweet-voiced Knowles), who's now a struggling single mother; and conducting choir auditions -- most of them comically disastrous. Ever the fabulist, Darrin tells everyone he's a New York record producer, even though he knows nothing about music. But in movies this sunny and redemptive, lack of skill is always outranked by force of will.
In one miraculous hour of screen time, the Beulah Baptist Church choir is restored to its former glory by using spare parts: the four harmonizers from the barbershop (in real life, they're the fabled O'Jays), a couple of hillbillies (Mickey Jones and T-Bone), some bickering sinners, a couple of drunks and three convicts from the local penitentiary, complete with orange jumpsuits and handcuffs. For comic relief, we've got comedian Steve Harvey as the fast-talking local DJ-slash-radio newsman and energetic Mike Epps as Lucius, Darrin's loquacious guide to Montecarlo's charms. The choir's new lead singer is, of course, the lovely Lilly (what else would we expect from Knowles, a founder of Destiny's Child?), but her run-ins with the opportunistic Darrin threaten to put all their dreams asunder.
Don't worry. Director Lynn, who showed a gift for small-town comedy in My Cousin Vinny and a way with action in The Whole Nine Yards, promptly stages a series of seamless, ebullient show-stoppers that encompass every musical style from gospel and soul to contemporary R&B and hip-hop, all of it perfectly designed to lift the spirits of characters and audiences alike. Knowles's steamy rendition of "Fever" is an early highlight, but by the time we get to the climactic Gospel Explosion contest (guess who wins), the aptly named Fighting Temptations have inspired full-bore, dancing-in-the-aisles bliss. As a bonus, Lynn also gives us an electrifying gospel number by the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama, but it's the dogged, ragtag, get-there-at-all-costs Fighting Temptations who really get into our souls -- and into the soul of the hero, a big-city faker who comes to realize how far down home his true feelings and true roots lie. Talk about a flood of feel-good emotion. You'll float out of the theater on a cloud of lingering backbeat.