Innocuous and sporadically diverting but also formulaic and undistinguished, “Kingdom Come” represents a step forward for director Doug McHenry (who previously co-helmed “House Party 2” and then went solo on the dreadful “Jason’s Lyric”), but–alas–the progress is distressingly slight. Based on a play called “Dearly Departed” by scripters David Dean Bottrell and Jessie Jones (and, as filmed, still very stagey), the picture resembles one of those ensemble pieces that might work onstage in church halls and community theatres, but would be hopelessly out of place on Broadway; half sitcom and half mawkish drama, it’s enlivened by an able cast, but would probably be more at home on the tube than the big screen.
The film is basically an episodic tale of the squabbles and reconciliations within a family that gathers to “mourn,” if that’s the word, the loss of one of its more disagreeable members, an irascible patriarch named Bud; needless to say, there are many lingering animosities that need to be laid to rest and old scores that require settlement before the funeral in which the picture culminates. The fact that the Slocumb family happens in this case to be black is notable from a historical perspective, perhaps, but it doesn’t add much to the inventiveness of the proceedings. The various family figures aren’t so much characters as they are the embodiment of solitary characteristics: one brother, Ray Bud (LL Cool J), is the recovering alcoholic, with a wife, Lucille (Vivica A. Fox), who’s wonderfully good-natured but desperate to get pregnant; the other, Junior (Anthony Anderson), is a failed entrepreneur whose wife Charisse (Jada Pinkett Smith) berates him for his failings (and suspects him of infidelity). Junior and Charisse have kids, but they’re little more than anonymous brats. Ray and Junior’s mother, the recently-widowed Raynelle (Whoopi Goldberg) is a quiet, reflective sort cognizant of her husband’s flaws and desiring everything carried off without turmoil. There’s also Bud’s sister Marguerite (Loretta Devine), a Bible-thumping proselytizer, and her ne’er-do-well son Royce (Darius McCrary); Juanita (Toni Braxton), a relative who’s married into wealth and condescends to everyone else; and Ray and Junior’s younger sister Delightful (Masasa), whose main interest in life is food. Added to the mix at the wake are lisping Reverend Hooker (Cedric the Entertainer), snooty brother-and-sister undertakers (Dominic Hoffman and Patrice Moncell), and Ray’s drunkard of a boss Clyde (Richard Gant), who’s easy with passes at women–among others too numerous to mention.
The premise obviously sets the stage for plenty of family quarrels and accusations, followed by the obligatory apologies and touchingly comic moments of forgiveness and joy. It’s all utterly schematic and predictable, since in a narrative of this sort it’s essential that every character come out looking good; the final twenty minutes, set at the funeral itself, is like a series of curtain calls in which each major member of the cast steps center-stage to do a riff that will earn laughter, tears, or both from an appreciative audience. The sense of calculation is crushingly palpable.
Still, the performers are agreeable enough to make the film tolerable if unexceptional. LL Cool J, Anderson and Fox are all relatively restrained and likable; Pinkett Smith comes off strident and loud, but that’s the nature of her character. Devine (whom you might recognize as the manic teacher on “Boston Public”) brings a bit of humanity to Marguerite, but Darius McCrary is amateurish as her boy (and his final speech is embarrassing, as well as implausible). Goldberg once again does her earth-mother routine as the not-so-grieving widow. Cedric the Entertainer (as opposed to Cedric the Plumber, one supposes), who was so deft in “The Original Kings of Comedy,” is less successful here, not only because the lisp is hardly a great comedy tool, but because in the big finale he has to do a eulogy while enduring serious gastric distress–a bit that was undoubtedly meant to be side-splittingly funny but comes across as somewhat crude (one of the few examples of such below-the-belt humor to be found in the script, happily).
Perhaps “Kingdom Come” would have made the grade if it had been not only more sharply written but more dextrously directed. McHenry’s helming isn’t exactly sloppy, but he does have a habit of letting scenes go slightly flat and run on too long. The result is a picture not unlike one of those family gatherings that you don’t look forward to attending overmuch and are a little too happy to see end.