leave a comment --Angel Cohn
What could have been merely an unconvincing romantic comedy gets a shot in the arm from a robust gospel, hip-hop and R&B soundtrack and a strong supporting cast of legendary musicians, including Shirley Caesar and the O'Jays. Their efforts don't make it good, but at least it's melodious. Young Darrin (Nigel Washington) and his mother (Faith Evans) were shunned by their local Baptist church because she dared to sing at R&B clubs. Years later, Darrin (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a con artist who scammed his way into a lucrative ad sales job and has maxed out his numerous credit cards. Just as a big promotion is coming his way, Darrin gets busted; fortunately, he learns that his estranged aunt Sally (Ann Nesby) has died and left him a substantial inheritance. Darrin decamps for his Georgia hometown, Monte Carlo, and discovers, naturally, that the windfall comes with a catch. Aunt Sally mandated that he must move back home, whip the ragged Beulah Baptist Church choir into shape and lead them to victory at the annual Gospel Explosion competition. Otherwise, no go on the dough. Citified Darrin quickly realizes this is no easy task: Not only are the choristers singularly untalented, but current choir director and neighborhood know-it-all Paulina (LaTanya Richardson) puts up roadblocks every step of the way. She especially objects to recruiting sultry jazz singer Lilly (Beyoncé Knowles), a single mother who performs sizzling tunes like "Fever" for attentive crowds of leering men. Helped by his outspoken cousin Lucius (Mike Epps) and good-hearted Reverend Lewis (Wendell Pierce), Darrin overrules Paulina and convinces Lilly to loan her talents to the ragtag ensemble. Darrin and company also sign up a motley crew of talented "sinners," including several convicted felons on loan from the local prison. Darrin naturally falls for lovely Lilly, who does her best to ignore his interest. Their romance is the film's blandest and least convincing element, since Gooding and Knowles have no discernable chemistry. And though Gooding has top billing, he's stuck in the unfamiliar position of playing straight-man to Epps. Singer and fledgling actress Knowles does her best as a struggling single parent, but only really shines when she has a microphone in her hand. The filmmakers seem to have meant to offer up a spiritual message about community and faith, but it's muddled and hard to find with romance, comedy and phenomenal gospel performances all fighting for the spotlight.