It’s hard to praise this heist comedy set in the house of God

First Sunday

on January 10, 2008 by John P. McCarthy

Tyler Perry -- the reigning impresario of raucous, faith-friendly entertainments about African-Americans -- needn’t feel threatened by First Sunday. Boisterous comedy and community-minded melodrama housed in a shoddy structure, it’s unlikely to become a rival franchise.

Like Perry, writer/director/producer David E. Talbert has been behind numerous stage and TV projects, yet this heist comedy marks his debut as a film director. He appears to lack the flair for showmanship that Perry exhibits (if often to the detriment of his films), which makes it harder to forgive the movie its sins. Talbert recruits Katt Williams and Tracy Morgan to fill some of the space frequently occupied by Perry’s outsized signature creation, the matriarch Madea, but never lets them loose. First Sunday could use more of their silly antics and less sentimental preaching about male roles and responsibilities centered on Ice Cube’s lead character.

In Baltimore, pals Durell (Ice Cube) and LeeJohn (Morgan) are desperate for cash. Durell is a sensible guy and a mechanical whiz who just can’t get a break. LeeJohn, who was named after his mother’s two boyfriends at the time of conception, has not one but two “Honk If You Like Weed” bumper stickers on his car. They’re in trouble with the law and owe a tidy sum to Jamaican hoods. Durell’s ex-wife is also threatening to move to Atlanta with his son if she doesn’t get $17,000 to pay the rent on her beauty shop.

Their solution is to rob a local church. The First Hope congregation is in the middle of a fundraising drive that will enable it to move the church to the suburbs, if a crooked deacon (Michael Beach) has his way, or stay put and invest in much-needed programs if the pastor’s daughter and other sisters prevail. One hot Sunday evening, Durell and LeeJohn bust in and take everyone hostage, including the choir led by the fey, wisecracking Rickey (Williams).

Although it contains a few humorous observations about race relations (“I didn’t kill the dream,” pleads LeeJohn to a picture of Martin Luther King hanging in the church office) and the quips delivered by Williams are amusing, Talbert’s script runneth over with clichéd characters and disjointed plotting. A massage parlor scene during which we learn LeeJohn wears cartoon-character briefs and likes a good slow jam, is both the movie’s low and high point. Neither set of material is exceptional, but LeeJohn’s tomfoolery (made more edgy by Morgan) is preferable to the well-meaning blather about Durell turning his life around and earning the respect of his son (made more stolid by Ice Cube).

The two don’t really earn the beneficence of these church people. Durell does fix the building’s A/C, but that would count for a lot more if the production hadn’t been filmed in Los Angeles and it felt more like a sticky night in Baltimore. It’s going to take more than cool air for audiences to get behind Durell and LeeJohn and attend First Sunday in droves -- perhaps divine intervention or the intercession of Tyler Perry’s Madea. As it stands, the only time viewers will be inspired to sing halleluja is on their way out of the theatre.

Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Katt Williams, Loretta Devine, Michael Beach, Keith David, Regina Hall, Malinda Williams and Chi McBride
Director/Screenwriter: David E. Talbert
Producers: David E. Talbert, David McIlvain, Tim Story, Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez
Genre: Comedy
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: January 11, 2008

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