by Ed Symkus

Opening with a couple of big blasts of gospel music at a raucous church service, complete with great voices and all the right accompanying moves, The Fighting Temptations -- I'm still not exactly sure what the title means -- takes the shape of a movie with a variation of a tired old plot, and a whole gaggle of outstanding musical treats.

It's small-town Georgia, just over 20 years ago. A young single mom has to choose between singing in the choir and, as one oh-so-righteous parishioner crows, performing "that R & amp;B sex music" she's been singing in a club at night. The talented, but suddenly deflated woman leaves town, with her little boy Darrin in tow.

It's New York City, today. Darrin is now a grown-up junior ad executive (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who's successfully clawing his way to the top -- until it's discovered that he padded his resume with a pile of lies. After being unceremoniously fired, he takes time to return to his Georgia town for the funeral of his Aunt Sally before trying to figure out how to keep the New York creditors away.

And here's where the threadbare plot comes into play. Darrin can't wait to get out of the backward little town. But when the will is read, he finds that Aunt Sally has left him the church choir (he doesn't want it). The will also states that if he can whip the choir into shape and win the state choir championship, he'll get Aunt Sally's $150,000 worth of stocks (he wants it).

The choir is only a ragtag group of six singers who can't sing. Does anyone not yet know where this movie is going?

But wait, there's more. Paulina (LaTanya Richardson), the old coot who was responsible for Darrin and his mom leaving town all those years ago, reveals that she's been waiting for Aunt Sally to pass so she could take the choir over. And Lilly (Beyonce Knowles), Darrin's childhood sweetheart, is still around, and now she is a single mom and singing the devil's music in a club.

Darrin not only flips out over her looks, he can hardly believe how great a singer she is. He immediately reinvents himself, much as he did in New York, and lies about his job. He suddenly becomes a New York record producer, and tries to get her to join the sorry choir. How about now -- anyone figure out what's going to come of all this?

There are no real surprises here. The plot, and a few of the characters, grow tiresome. But there's plenty of funny stuff from Steve Harvey as Miles, a local DJ who acts as the film's Greek chorus, and from Mike Epps as Lucius, a smooth-talking, full-of-himself Cadillac driver. Gooding goes at his part with a whole lot of enthusiasm. He overdoes it when it comes to flashing big smiles. Yet somehow, when he gets so into the physicality of conducting the choir, it doesn't get in the way. At one point he launches into one hell of an amazing back-flip. He's fun to watch.

The film's highlights revolve not around acting performances, but musical ones. The O'Jays are on hand and do a smooth-as-silk "Loves Me Like a Rock" in the barbershop; Reverend Shirley Caesar does everything but bust a gut at Aunt Sally's memorial service when she launches into a combination preaching-singing session; Destiny's Child's star, Beyonce, is passable as an actor, but -- whew! -- can she sing.

The musical scenes get better and better, filling the film with gospel and pop energy. What a pity that it all suddenly turns crassly commercial when the music switches to loud hip-hop. That's the bad news. It's there for absolutely no reason. It simply breaks off from the mood and the plot. The good news is that it goes away after one song.

The competition, fortunately, does go on, and it features, among other performances, an all-too-brief appearance by the Blind Boys of Alabama. Yet just as the momentum of this big set piece gets in motion, the film makes a couple of inexplicable starts and stops -- like the hip-hop, for absolutely no reason -- then gets back on track.

It's marred by a clich & eacute;d ending, but there's some more great pop-gospel at the credits, and Gooding, in a surprising show of grace and athletic skill, really gets to show off his dancing chops.

Publication date: 09/18/03

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