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A chorus of disapproval

Gospel music can't absolve sins of Temptations



Foreign policy analysts can make a compelling case to lift the trade embargo against Cuba. The case to impose a cinematic embargo on Cuba Gooding Jr., however, becomes stronger than ever with The Fighting Temptations.

After his best supporting actor Oscar win for Jerry Maguire, Gooding's talent and decision-making capacity entered such a downward spiral that he now regularly stars in the worst films of our time: Pearl Harbor, Boat Trip, Chill Factor, etc. Rat Race passes for a highlight of Gooding's recent resume. Compared to Gooding's usual fare, The Fighting Temptations features some redeeming aspects, including great gospel music and some inoffensive Southern humor, but Gooding injects a kind of bland desperation to the film's contrived plot.

He plays Darrin Hill, who loses his fast-track job at a New York ad agency when his bosses learn that he falsified his Ivy League credentials. Ever since his mother was kicked out of their hometown church for singing in "juke joints" when he was a boy, Darrin has been a striving, materialistic liar. Fired from his job and with creditors on his heels, he flees to his hometown of Montecarlo, Ga., on learning of his beloved Aunt Sally's death.

The Fighting Temptations was filmed around the Atlanta area, but unlike Sweet Home Alabama, another local production, its quaint Southern touches can be amusing. Mike Epps provides pleasing comic relief as a would-be playa who praises "Southern booty," state by state, but he doesn't get enough to do.

Aunt Sally bequeaths Darrin a surprise in her will: a dog sled team. No, wait, that's Snow Dogs. Actually, Darrin will inherit a fortune in stock if he organizes his one-time church's choir until it's good enough to enter the annual Gospel Explosion competition in Columbus.

Temptations thus follows Darrin's attempts to be honest with himself and others as he assembles a rag-tag chorus of rejects and underdogs. A tone-deaf rendition of "Amazing Grace" establishes the current choir's lack of ability, so Darrin tries to enlist new members such as his childhood sweetheart Lilly (Beyonce Knowles), who was cast from the church for being an unwed mother. As an actress, Knowles remains a promising amateur, but as one of the most beautiful women in pop culture, she's a major asset here, especially when singing her sultry, nightclub version of "Fever."

LaTanya Richardson plays the one-note role as the choir's nemesis, a judgmental busybody who opposes any attempt to loosen the church's rules to include members like angelic-voiced prison inmates.

Throughout the film Gooding can't seem to decide if Darrin's a slick hustler (a la Bernie Mac) or a nervous, over-his-head pretender (like 1950s Tony Randall), and his acting falls in the mushy middle. He has only two impressive moments: when his facade briefly cracks at Aunt Sally's funeral and genuine grief pours out, and when he breakdances during the closing credits.

Temptations reveals a strange attitude toward gospel music. Its first hour includes roof-raising, tambourine-shaking numbers by famed musicians like the Rev. Shirley Caesar and the O'Jays, who do a barbershop quartet version of "Loves Me Like a Rock." But as Darrin's choir begins shaping up, the film embraces a contemporary sound, beginning when a traditional treatment of "Down by the River Side" segues to a hip-hop version, complete with Eminem-style rapping. The climactic numbers sound like overproduced soul ballads tailored for urban radio, which might be a sop to fans of Destiny's Child but feels like a snubbing of the joyful noise that elevates earlier scenes.

The Fighting Temptations features soaring voices and some superb, old-school gospel songs, but to reach them you have to endure labored plot complications, drab cinematography and Gooding's wearying, futile efforts to be liked. It's like getting the chance to see great musicians, only to find that the cover charge is too high.

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