3 stars (out of 4)
To say "The Fighting Temptations" flies under the comic radar might be a bit of an understatement.
In fact, if comedy did have its own radar, it would be flashing: "Warning! Warning! Another Cuba Gooding Jr. comedy! Stay away! Stay away!"
But despite the daunting obstacle of Gooding's tainted screen cred, a goofy promo poster and an extremely awkward title, "The Fighting Temptations" breaks through as a delightful, surprisingly fresh comedy.
Now, given Gooding's recent track record (the abysmal "Boat Trip" and "Snow Dogs"), this might be the hit he needs. The Oscar winner's choice of recent roles seems to indicate some sort of head trauma, or at the very least a bad agent. But with "The Fighting Temptations," luck or fate or both have kicked in for the actor.
Gooding stars as Darrin Hill, a young man who returns to his small hometown of Montecarlo, Ga., for the funeral of Aunt Sally, previously his only living relative. As it turns out, her will entitles him to a $150,000 stock portfolio - but only if he can lead the church's atonal choir to victory at the annual Gospel Explosion. After months of credit-card roulette and years of faking his professional credentials, Darrin has no choice but to accept the challenge in order to keep his creditors at bay and keep his raft of lies afloat.
As a movie premise, there's nothing new here. Films like "Brewster's Millions" and even "The Bachelor" have similar race-to-meet-insane-inheritance conditions. "The Fighting Temptations," however, smartly pushes this framework to the background and zeros in on Gooding's predicament in a small community of eccentrics.
No one, it seems, can carry a tune except for his archenemy, Paulina Pritchett (LaTanya Richardson), the self-righteous sister of the church preacher. Also in good voice is church outcast Lily (Beyonce Knowles of the pop group Destiny's Child), who happens to have been Darrin's childhood crush.
All of this rings of tried-and-true movie conventions, right up to drunken radio announcer Miles (comedian Steve Harvey) providing comic-relief commentary on all the action. But witty, out-of-nowhere lines make "Temptations" crackle. To reveal too many of them would detract from the movie's comedic ambush, but having an underused Rue McClanahan (Blanche from TV's "The Golden Girls") declare in a perfectly timed joke, "And to think I was going to let him sleep with me," after a particularly obvious betrayal, can knock the wind out of you.Writers Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson manage the difficult challenge of keeping their laughs both sharp and family friendly - no small feat.
Knowles, previously used as eye candy in "Austin Powers 3," comes into her own here as a single mother and aspiring lounge singer. Not only does she deliver some impressive vocal gymnastics in a saucy R&B version of Peggy Lee's "Fever," but she fares well opposite Gooding in his single best comic role to date. (Stick around during the credits to watch his break-dancing skills.)
Director Jonathan Lynn ("The Whole Nine Yards," "My Cousin Vinny") harnesses a powerful, energetic score by R&B producing legends Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and James "Big Jim" Wright, filming gospel montages with just the right mix of uptempo editing and crowd control. The choir's competition number could have used a bit more heat, but rollicking church sequences peppered throughout the film provide ample hand-clapping opportunities.
If Paramount promotes it right, "The Fighting Temptations" could become another grassroots hit in the vein of "Barbershop" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
"The Fighting Temptations"
Directed by Jonathan Lynn; written by Elizabeth Hunter, Saladin K. Patterson; photographed by Affonso Beato; production design by Victoria Paul; edited by Paul Hirsch; produced by David Gale, Loretha C. Jones, Jeff Pollack. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 19. Running time: 1:23. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexual references).
Darrin Hill - Cuba Gooding Jr.
Lily - Beyonce Knowles
Lucius - Mike Epps
Paulina Pritchett - LaTanya Richardson
Reverend Lewis - Wendell Pierce