The Fighting Temptations: Jim Sheldon
September 18, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s rare to find a film set in the South that delights in, yet never demeans, its country tropes. It’s even more rare to find a musical that successfully blends sincerity with showmanship. And it’s extraordinarily rare to find a movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., he of ”Snow Dogs” and ”Boat Trip” infamy, that’s actually good.

And that makes The Fighting Temptations a small miracle. Full-throated and good-hearted, yet tart and sharp in all the right places, this R&B/gospel-fueled fairy tale (exuberantly directed by Jonathan Lynn from a nimble script by Elizabeth Hunter and Saladin K. Patterson) can be forgiven its many contrivances for the same reason that Velma Kelly could credibly stage a dance number in a women’s prison: Nobody cares, as long as toes are tapping.

Gooding’s characteristically hyperactive histrionics actually take on a kind of refinement here, as he plays a Gatsby-esque New York adman named Darrin Fox, who’s just been fired for fabricating his résumé: Far from being a Yale man raised in Monte Carlo, Fox is a high school dropout raised in nightclubs by his mother, an R&B warbler who was kicked out of the Montecarlo, Ga., Baptist choir for singing the devil’s music.

Now a beneficent aunt’s death — and her dying wish that the prodigal Fox lead the choir — draws the fast-talking player back to Montecarlo, where, predictably, there’s both a musical contest and a lady’s heart to be won (the latter belonging to frequent showstopper Beyoncé Knowles). But the movie is really an ensemble piece: Mike Epps, Steve Harvey, Rev. Shirley Caesar, rapper T-Bone, and others turn in a rat-a-tat variety show of heights-hitting performances. ”Temptations” makes shameless use of tried-and-true elements — but it’s hardly the same old song.

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