The Fighting Temptations

on September 19, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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Call it "Sister Act 3." In this musical comedy, aspiring ad exec Darrin Hill (Cuba Gooding Jr.) inherits a church gospel choir when his beloved aunt bequeaths it to him in her will. The catch is that he's not really qualified to conduct the group but agrees to lead them to competition in the Gospel Explosion, as his inheritance of her stocks depends on it. The ruse (he pretends to be a record producer) comes easily, as he has claimed to be a Congressman's son and to have graduated from Yale--lies that have recently gotten him fired and set bill collectors on his tail. Further, the current crooners are in sorry need of talent, so Darrin scours a local dive, barbershop and prison for the vocal chords that will lead them to victory. Meanwhile, he falls hard for Lilly (Beyonce Knowles), a single mom who has been banned from the church choir for her "sins" but who is the songbird of which they are in dire need.

"The Fighting Temptations" is earnest in its message: Choir participation and church attendance have suffered mightily due to one mettlesome parishioner, the preacher's sister, who insists that everyone adhere to the strictest standards of clean livin'. But, as the singers open their arms, attendance goes up, in direct correlation to the acceptance of all God's children in the gospel group.

Meanwhile, Darrin 'fesses up to his lies and gives up his selfish ways. It's in this storyline that the film falters. Gooding, whose choices since his Oscar win for "Jerry Maguire" have been questionable to say the least, is sleepwalking through this role. One gets the sense that he doesn't have a clear understanding of or sympathy for his character, and thus the audience doesn't, either. In contrast, his co-star Knowles, uncomfortably younger than he, is hot, sexy, luminous--the engine that drives the picture.

Gooding loosens up later in the film when he is directing the choir, though even here, as the only character who doesn't sing, he is at a distinct disadvantage. The musical sequences--gospel infused with hip-hop--are energetically performed, filmed and edited and the salvation of the movie--a showcase for the soloists, backup singers, dancers, organist and tambourine player. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Beyonce Knowles, Wendell Pierce, LaTanya Richardson and Mike Epps. Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Written by Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson. Produced by David Gale, Loretha C. Jones, Benny Medina and Jeff Pollack. A Paramount release. Musical comedy. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references. Running time: 121 min

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