You're a studio boss and you want Tyler Perry
, but Lionsgate ain't giving up its share of the profitable African-American phenomenon any time soon. So, after scouring the urban playwright landscape, you stumble upon David E. Talbert
. From a PR perspective, the noted creator of many "inspirational musicals" has all the credentials necessary to be the next demographically correct cash cow. All that's missing is the drag act dynamic and the Oprah Stamp of Approval. Both may be necessary to make Talbert's feature film, First Sunday, a beyond-the-target-audience hit. This well-meaning if ultimately manipulative morality tale definitely needs some kind of extra entertainment spark.
When we first meet Durell (Ice Cube
) and LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan
), they have just been snagged by the cops for their involvement with some stolen, pimped-out wheelchairs. Sentenced to 5,000 hours of community service by a no-nonsense judge (Keith David), they soon find themselves picking up trash along the streets of Baltimore. When the gangster owners of the medical equipment come looking for payment, LeeJohn is suddenly $12,000 in the hole. Then Durell learns that his Baby Momma Omunique (Regina Hall
) needs $17,000 to keep her beauty shop open, or she'll have to move to Atlanta -- and take the couple's son with them. Desperate for money, the guys stumble into the neighborhood church, where Pastor Mitchell (Chi McBride
) and his snooty Deacon (Michael Beach) have just announced the successful raising of $300,000 for a new building project. So naturally, our heroes decide to rob the congregation. Article continues below
For the first 40 minutes or so, First Sunday is the Tracy Morgan show. Mugging endlessly for the camera and riffing on everything from current pop culture cues to old-school self-deprecating slapstick, he's like a half-successful humor monsoon threatening to swamp everyone -- and everything -- in the film. All costar Cube can do is look sullen and try to maintain the broad caricature balance. Then formidable funny man flavor-of-the-moment Kat Williams arrives as a cowardly chorus director (and clear crowd pleaser), and the momentum of the narrative shifts. Before long, we are hearing the standard sermon on the inner city mount about "the community" (pro and con), faith, and religious-based redemption. Talbert slogs through as many archetypal epiphanies as he can. Morgan learns that there can be love outside of his abused foster child past, while Cube gets a lecture in learning just who to blame for his lot in life.
Along the way, fat people are mocked, old folks offer formulaic Yoda-like wisdom, the suburbs are equated with something sinister, and comedian Rickey Smiley does a single scene cameo as a crotchety old lady ala a certain madam Madea. It would be nice to say that, as a filmmaker, Talbert goes for broke in trying to deliver both laughs and life lessons, but that would be suggesting a sense of effort. Everything here is overly simplified for easy digestion -- dialogue, jokes, characterization, storyline, and payoff. All an audience has to do is sit back and let the head-bobbing acknowledgment begin.
While it's true that Talbert (and for that matter, Perry) caters to a segment of our population grossly underserved by Tinseltown's color blindness, it's sad that said subset has to suffer with mediocrity like this. First Sunday is not an unwatchably bad movie. In fact, there are moments of real emotion buried inside all the stock situations and blatant Bible thumping. Yet what the movie really needs is more laughs. A little more humor would definitely help the gratuitous God stuff go down easier.