Ice Cube’s 1995 “Friday,” though hardly a good movie, spawned a couple of sequels (“Next Friday” and “Friday After Next”), but this “First Sunday” is also likely to be the last. A dreary combination of flat slapstick and mawkish sentimentality, the comedy about a botched robbery and hostage-taking is so bad that even The Cube’s most ardent fans are going to feel they’re the real victims.
The debut picture by writer-director David E. Talbert teams The Cube with Tracy Morgan, the intensely irritating fellow from “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” as Durell and LeeJohn, unlikely buddies in Baltimore who both need money—Durell to pay off his ex-wife’s beauty shop bills so that she won’t move to Atlanta with their son, and LeeJohn to keep from being shot by a hood he owes money to in a scheme to sell blinged-up wheelchairs. Their solution is to break into a local church to steal the cash the congregation’s been collecting.
Of course, everything goes wrong, and the duo find themselves holding a bunch of churchgoers hostage. Among them are the avuncular pastor (Chi McBride) and his sassy but bodacious daughter (Malinda Williams); the snarky deacon (Michael Beach); the fluttery church secretary (Loretta Devine) and her young foster-son; an elderly parishioner (Olivia Cole); and the choir director (Katt Williams). Inevitably the would-be thieves bond with their hostages, who save them when they’re threatened by the law; and the real villain, who’s been absconding with the congregation’s money, gets his comeuppance.
It’s barely possible that this scenario might have worked, but Talbert isn’t the fellow to pull it off. His writing lacks comedic sharpness and falls too often into pious platitudes (and it certainly doesn’t help to insert lines like “This is a travesty” into a picture like this), and his direction is, to put it charitably, haphazard—the first twenty minutes are a complete shambles, and things don’t improve much afterward, with a big courtroom finale that’s about the worst example of ersatz Capracorn you’ll ever see. The messiness is compounded by a chintzy physical production, slapdash cinematography by Alan Caso, and editing by Jeffrey Wolf that smacks more of desperation than style. Add one of those overbearing scores by Stanley Clarke and you’ve got something that assaults the ear as well as the eye.
As to the cast, there’s little positive to say. Ice Cube veers from smoldering rage to that uncomfortably sweet side he’s been trying to convey lately, and his redemption comes across as totally unconvincing as well as undeserved. (Having the apoplectic judge he keeps coming before, played without an ounce of restraint by Keith David, note pointedly that he was an outstanding student is an especially implausible touch.) Morgan proves the most annoying sidekick since Chris Tucker (who co-starred in “Friday” before being replaced in the sequels by Mike Epps), at his worst early on in a totally gratuitous homophobic sequence in a massage parlor. It doesn’t help that with his moony smile he looks remarkably like the animated creature in the current “Water Horse,” but certainly it wasn’t necessary to have him strip down to his undies and do a Will Ferrell for the camera. Even in a movie that sets its sights this low there should be some limits.
On the supporting side, Devine and McBride are wasted in one-note parts, Williams tries too hard (as does David and Regina Hall as Durell’s harpy ex), and Cole overplays the wise old biddy bit. Further down the line, a dragged-out Rickey Smiley grates in a crude caricature as another long-time church member, but he/she unaccountably—but thankfully—disappears after a single scene.
In fact, the only person who emerges intact from the rubble is Katt Williams, who again (as in the recent “The Perfect Holiday”) proves the best thing in the movie as the prissy choirmaster. He’s a naturally funny guy, and though he has to put up with some poor costuming and makeup, gets to deliver some (probably improvised) throwaway zingers that provide the few moments of real humor here. The risk now is that somebody’s going to think it a good idea to promote him to lead status; like Cedric the Entertainer, he’s a great ensemble player likely to disappoint if moved to center stage.
But for those unlucky enough to be trapped in the pews for “First Sunday,” he’s the sole saving grace.