Fighting Temptations (2003)
Darrin (Gooding) and his mother (Faith Evans) were kicked out of the church when he was young because mom was singing secular music in the church. Darrin grows up to be a slick-talking city guy and gets cut from his job in NY as a junior level executive for an alcohol ad agency after having lied his way close to the top. He then learns that his only living relative, Aunt Sally, from small town Montecarlo, GA has passed away and has willed him the church choir. The choir regularly competes in the Gospel Explosion competition, and Darrin continues the lies in order to win the prize money to solve his financial issues – he says he’s a music producer, and even bribes better singers to join the choir with half of the prize money. He even convinces the town hottie, Lily (Beyonce) to join, despite her being looked down for the same reasons as Darrin’s mother. After gaining a group of very…um, “diverse” singers, the choir finally starts to get pretty good. But will Darrin’s incessant lies finally catch up with him? Will the pastor’s selfish but sneaky sister figure him out? Will Mike Epps ever get his 50/50? Come on kids, let’s find out!
- Singers – We get Beyonce, Angie Stone, Shirley Ceasar, The O’Jays,Faith Evans, Montell Jordan…TONS of great singing talent/legends in the movie. As a group and for the solos we get (and this film is littered with solo performances and choir songs), everything sounds musically pretty legit. Some songs are more memorable than others, of course, and we even get a little infusion of more contemporary music. So yes, the soundtrack pretty good (especially how nice the song at the Gospel Explosion is)…the performances are too showy though.
- Choir Audition Montage – Not really the best of these kinds of scenes, but it was entertaining. Steve Harvey announcing over the radio “atheists can now audition” was perfect.
- Steve Harvey – Harvey works for the radio station in town, keeping the town up to date on everything “happening” – whether it’s the grueling hot temperature or the fact that Darrin is on the way to the church, and this now news. But all his jokes/one-liners about what’s going on genuinely felt like Steve Harvey saw them filming this movie and just wandered around cracking on them. “The 5 Blind Boys of Alabama are next…it used to be 6 but one of them got healed and he’s their driver now…and they need him, because they used to walk the wrong way to gigs.”
- Aunt Sally – We see very little of Darrin’s Aunt Sally, but she is the only one to stand up to Pauline and represent what God actually loving these people. Later Darrin reads an old letter from her that pretty much sums up the morale: “why can’t you just accept yourself for who you are? I do!” I wish it was possible to have more of her in the movie (maybe via flashbacks) because she was the closest thing to embodiment of the heart of the movie.
- Montell Jordan – He plays one of 3 inmates who join the choir because the warden says “I have inmates who can sing better than your choir!” He talks/sings in falsetto the entire time, and is pretty dang funny. You know your performance is golden when you can somehow say “I ain’t doin’ it!” in falsetto, with a neck tattoo of a spider, while still sounding intimidating.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
- Beyonce – Okay, here’s the deal: this came out in 2003. We’ve seen Beyonce perform much stronger as a singer, actor and overall performer in the last 11 years. However, for what we had come to know of her by the time this came out (post-Destiny’s Child, starting the solo career & getting into movies), this wasn’t really her best work for what we’d come to expect of her. I mean yeah, she is a great singer, and she gets to share the stage with some great talent in this movie. But her performance in this movie (save some moments in her songs) is pretty underwhelming. I’m not saying Beyonce is NOT a good performer here. I’m saying she doesn’t seem up to her usual Beyonce levels of greatness. And the writing leaves her to be darn bland/cardboard as a character; though I won’t act like some of her deliveries could have been better on her own.
- Hollywood’s Stereotypical Church – I watched this with my brother, who pointed out “it feels like Hollywood is saying this is what church is like. But it isn’t.” I definitely think there’s some merit to this idea. Joyful Noise had some of this as well (more so in situations/morals than services) , and we’ve seen it in movies throughout the years – over-exaggerated, hyper-enthusiastic, dramatic “praise de lawd, glory hallelujah” jumping up and down churches. I grew up in churches that one might argue was similar to this (upbeat music, loud, mostly black people excitedly/passionately praising God) but it was very earnest and meaningful in doing so. It was not the big “production” the media portrays it to be. This is purely for entertainment value and is not really representative of what churches like this are…well, like. And it’s frankly kind of insulting when you really think about it. It also leads into the next problem…
- Singing in Clubs = Dismissal from Church – The “antagonist” nagging sister of the pastor, Pauline, calls Darrin’s mom out at the beginning of the movie for singing in the church choir Sunday but singing in the club Saturday. She is then faced with the ultimatum of choosing, and choosing to leave. First of all, it’s in front of everybody over a matter that should just concern the choir. That’s not an issue everyone should be privy to. Second, I realize this is supposed to be a mean-spirited moment of ‘we don’t accept this non-Christian lifestyle’, but it’s too mean-spirited. They, as a church, condemn one “wrong” thing with poor Faith Evan’s character and essentially kick her out of the church, which goes against everything the church should stand for. And I can say ‘as a church’ because even though it’s spearheaded by the pastor’s sister, he eventually backs down and states the ultimatum, and despite the efforts of Aunt Sally, the rest of the bystanders just stand by and let this happen. Also, this carried into Lily’s backstory as far as why she feels the church doesn’t accept her, and it doesn’t seem even remotely ‘bad enough’ for why someone would not be accepted in this church. Why it’s not vs. what would be, is a whole ‘nother discussion – but for the movie’s purposes, this just feels really contrived and not that authentic. I’m positive that there are churches that make others feel publicly unwelcome because of their personal shortcomings, but…not like this. Not this dramatic.
- Pastor’s Lack of Backbone – This is his only character trait. I realize it’s supposed to be for laughs, but it gets old very quickly. The more he gives into his sister’s pouting and judgemental-based statements, the more she is really the one running (therefore RUINING) the church. This only emphasizes a big problem with the movie – there’s no reverence for the church. The closest character we get who is both strong and representing what the church actually stands for is Aunt Sally, but of course she dies so soon and we see so little of her. The pastor is weak, and many of the characters are pursuing their own selfish motivations. Therefore, no one is really standing for much when it all comes down to it. “When you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”
- Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Directing – Obviously, Darrin isn’t supposed to know what he’s doing as a choir director and fakes it throughout the movie. And I’m sure in real life, Gooding was likely never a gospel choir director. But I really wonder if they told him to just jump around for the whole movie, or if this is really his own interpretation of how to do this. If you ever watch a gospel choir director, yes, IT IS NO JOKE. It’s a very physical activity for which you better have eaten your wheaties and finished jogging a few miles first just to stay in shape! However, there are actual musical cues involved at work, and Gooding does none of them. Yeah, it’s pretty entertaining though. I’ll leave it at that – not good, not bad, just silly.
I said a lot about this movie, which is interesting because it’s not like it’s the most memorable film! It was a fun movie to watch as a kid when it came out, but it really isn’t much memorable beyond its’ soundtrack and a few jokes. Montell Jordan & Steve Harvey get in some good laughs (a couple from Mike Epps as well), Cuba Gooding Jr. is technically perfect for the role, and this movie’s heart was in the right place. But it does suffer from convoluting this with the Hollywood version of what the church is like in a mean-spirited way. The “antagonist” was the pastor’s nagging sister Pauline, and the movie didn’t really need a person to do what she does – the real antagonist could have just been the negative emotions created with Darrin’s lies and everyone’s selfishness blocking any good intentions. There wasn’t a good enough balance to make the movie really mean something. But everyone had fun singing and carrying on, and somewhere Mike Epps is bragging about how he was in a choir movie in which he probably never actually sang a note. So, there’s that.
It was a close one for me – pretty down-the-middle movie when it’s all said & done…but what tipped it just over the edge was the lousy/lazy interpretation of the church and its’ effect on the characters & the plot.
Let me know what you think!