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See the expression on Ice Cube's face in this photograph? I wore that same expression for the entire running time of First Sunday. The transition of the holiday movie season into the barren movie wasteland of January is always a jarring one. For the past three months, it seems like I've seen nothing but Oscar-caliber movies -- masterful films by outstanding filmmakers working from amazing scripts. So maybe First Sunday just pales in comparison...
But I don't think so.
No, this is not yet another sequel to that terrific Ice Cube comedy Friday, as many have suspected. Sunday tells the story of "new" characters Durell (Cube) and LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan). As the movie opens, the boys are picked up by the cops for their involvement with some stolen wheelchairs. They are sentenced to 5,000 hours of community service, the owner of the wheelchairs comes to collect, and Durell finds himself broke. Things get even more desperate when Durell's ex-girlfriend (Regina Hall) tells him she intends to move to another state with his son...unless he can come up with $17,000 to pay off a debt. So Durell and LeeJohn do what anyone in their shoes would do -- they decide to rob a church. And of course, after a night amongst good Christian folk, they learn that crime is bad and God is good and blah blah blah.
Writer/director David E. Talbert is one of the most successful playwrights in America, and he is clearly being groomed as another Tyler Perry. Couldn't Hollywood try to find another Spike Lee instead? Talbert has never directed a movie before, so it's tempting to cut him some slack, but at times it feels like he's never seen a movie before. Sunday is terribly edited, confusingly shot and constantly lurching from nonexistent laughs to unearned emotion. Everyone on screen looks downright confused and without confidence. No one seems to know what he or she is supposed to be doing at any given time.
Ice Cube hasn't exactly stretched himself throughout his acting career, but he is a reliably entertaining straight man. Here, his scowls and eye rolls feel less comically annoyed than just plain bored. Tracy Morgan has been a truly original, unusual comedic talent for years, and his frequently insane line readings slay me on 30 Rock. But 30 Rock has a brilliant writing staff. In First Sunday, Morgan tries for laughs, but it's like attempting to get blood from a stone. Actually, it's beyond that. It's like attempting to get blood, a vodka tonic, and a ham sandwich from a stone. When Morgan starts crying at one point, I was certain it was a joke. Morgan plays the scene well, but it's so out of place, it's like Talbert wrote "Insert Emotional Moment Here" into the script and never bothered to flesh it out. What could have been moving with even a touch of foreshadowing or context is awkward and embarrassing to watch.
The great supporting cast is largely wasted. Loretta Devine, so warm and wonderful in last year's This Christmas, just goes through the motions. Chi McBride is generally the highlight of whatever he is involved in (witness the hilarious sing-along over the end credits of Bob Odenkirk's Let's Go to Prison). As the pastor in First Sunday, he spends the movie tied to a chair and looking disappointed in himself. He seems to struggle through every scene while glaring offscreen at his agent, and rightly so. Only Katt Williams, a performer I have never found funny, manages to bring a little life to the proceedings. Playing a (borderline offensive) flamboyant choir director, Williams appears to improvise every line. Even though his quips are not all gold, at least they give the movie a bit of spontaneity. Williams' relentless one-liners are especially helpful in keeping a climactic courtroom scene afloat -- a courtroom scene so ridiculous it makes a similar sequence in Big Daddy look like A Few Good Men.
First Sunday takes place in Baltimore, and I was excited to see a different glimpse of the city than the depressing one shown in the best show on television -- The Wire. You can imagine my disappointment when an exterior shot near the end of the film showed a street lined with palm trees! Palm trees in inner-city Baltimore! I realize movies can't always shoot on location, but shouldn't someone have noticed that? That kind of sloppiness and laziness dominates every frame of First Sunday. It's a movie with its heart in the right place...and everything else in the wrong place.