EmptyAs a vehicle for Ice Cube's comic talents, "First Sunday" never gets out of first gear. It plods along at a sluggard's pace through a weak premise with crude execution and even cruder characters to arrive at an unearned sentimental ending.
As a producer, which he is here, Ice Cube has demonstrated an ability to pick smart comedy material (the "Barbershop" films) or at least solid commercial fare ("Are We There Yet?"). Here those instincts desert him. However, he may have developed enough good will through previous efforts to wring a week or so of modest boxoffice out of this exceptionally lame affair for Sony's Screen Gems division.
At no time does "First Sunday" threaten to become actually funny. Much more distressing, though, is the penchant of novice filmmaker David E. Talbert, who apparently has made a successful living writing "inspirational" comedies and musical plays for the black theater circuit, to rely on extreme caricatures of crooks, punks, church ladies, preacher men, "flamboyant" choir masters and con artists. A forced happy ending doesn't remove the bad taste from your mouth.
Ice Cube plays Durell, a clearly intelligent and well-educated young man who for no apparent reason can't get a job that doesn't involve criminality. His partner in crime, LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan, trying way too hard to make things happen), is too dimwitted to be even a passing acquaintance, much less a lifelong friend.
Nevertheless, the script insists that LeeJohn talks Durell into robbing, yes, a church of its building fund so that Durell has enough money to prevent his baby mama (Regina Hall, stuck in a role of permanent righteous indignation) from moving with his son from Baltimore to Atlanta.
They break into the church one night only to find virtually the entire congregation there and the building fund already looted. As they hold everyone hostage, warfare breaks out among the pastor (Chi McBride), his beauteous daughter (Malinda Williams), a fast-taking deacon (Michael Beach), the church secretary (Loretta Devine) and an over-the-top choir director (Katt Williams). Soon Durell is playing mediator and fixing the broken air conditioning while LeeJohn gets a loving hug no one ever gave him before.
It comes as no surprise that Talbert comes from a long line of Pentecostal preachers and means to prove that the church, if not God, works in mysterious ways to reform sinners and suss out the real crooks among the congregation. But a threadbare script, tone-deaf direction and stalled comic action are no way to get there.
Ice Cube as an actor is not at all bad here, as his character has some depth and meaningful inner conflicts. But if he's going to take producing credit, then he should take responsibility for deepening and strengthening characters other than his own and for building the comedy, hitting real nerve endings and refraining from chitlin-circuit stereotypes. Until he does, Ice Cube should stop working for himself.
Cube Vision/Firm Films/The Story Company
Screenwriter-director: David E. Talbert
Producer: David E. Talbert, David McIlvain, Tim Story, Matt Alvarez
Executive producer: Stacy Kolker Cramer, Neil Machlis, Ronald Muhammed, Julie Yorn
Director of photography: Alan Caso
Production designer: Dina Lipton
Music: Stanley Clarke
Costume designer: Gersha Phillips
Editor: Jeffrey Wolf
Durell: Ice Cube
LeeJohn: Tracy Morgan
Rickey: Katt Williams
Sister Doris: Loretta Devine
Deacon: Michael Beach
Judge B. Bennett Galloway: Keith David
Omunique: Regina Hall
Tianna: Malinda Williams
Pastor Mitchell: Chi McBride
Running time -- 98 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13