First Sunday

2008-01-11 (General release)

Ice Cube’s franchising of the weekdays continues with First Sunday. But where the first incarnation of the Friday series offered something like a fresh take on young black males facing economic and cultural limits, this film is more like a head-on collision of CubeVision and Tyler Perry, resulting in a clunky assemblage of very familiar components. As in the Friday sagas, the Barbershop films, and the (hopefully over) Are We There Yet?/Are We Done Yet? sequence, Cube plays the affable, seemingly reasonable straight man, trying to survive a pile-on of mayhem. It’s clear that the writer-producer-actor-rapper and director (remember Player’s Club, a film displaying actual ambition?) is a savvy marketer and pulse-taker. His movies — however formulaic, predictable, even tedious — make money. This is plainly a function of their relatively low production costs, but also has to do with the good will Cube has earned from consumers and associates. Folks like him and like working with him: check the repeat business he does with collaborators, post-Eazy E.

First Sunday‘s Durell could be Doughboy a few years later, as well as Craig Jones, Bucum, Nick Persons, and Calvin Palmer too. He’s got himself in a fix, out of money just when his ex, Omunique (Regina Hall) is threatening to move to the ATL with their son Durell Jr. (C.J. Sanders). As glosses on Durell’s character, mother and son are woefully humdrum. She greets him at the door with a familiar query (“Where’s my money!?” and worse, has as her at-home beauty client New York, as in I Love New York) and the boy represents the sorts of pressures the wannabe good father might feel for himself, even without extra prodding. Still, the film doesn’t trust its audience to keep up, and has Durell Jr. speak: “I wanna be like LeBron James,” the son tells the father. “Just in case that doesn’t work,” advises the elder, “You gotta have a Plan B.” Apparently, the lack of a Plan B has hindered dad’s lifestyle options over the past few years, as his job at the TV repair shop has left him looking for ways around, including a scheme with his boy LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan, who brings his own earnest lunacy to the role previously performed by Chris Tucker and Mike Epps) to sell hot wheelchairs (not quite on the demented scale of Jamie Foxx’s scheme to sell prawns in Bait, but in the ballpark).

When the wheelchairs plan goes south, LeeJohn and Rell are sentenced to 5,000 hours of community service by Judge Galloway (Keith David, in the mode of Judge Mathis). That is, they’re set up for the film’s primary scheme: robbing a church. This little bit of genius is initiated when they follow a pretty girl inside the building, observe the plate-passing, and are amazed (even if they’ve never been inside a church before, have they never watched TV?). Determining they are desperate and so, justified, they head back inside later that night with their safe-cracking tools.

This escapade takes up nearly an hour of screen time, which means it’s repetitive and poky. It also introduces the movie’s impressive supporting cast, here playing an assortment of cardboard cutouts. From self-righteous Deacon (Michael Beach) and breathy Sister Doris (Loretta Devine) to wise Mama T (Olivia Cole) and exasperated Pastor Mitchell (Chi McBride), these players are lined up as a series of reaction shots, in particular to the dreary self-pity and general ignorance demonstrated by LeeJohn (his “My foster mother used to beat me” narrative inspires Sister Doris to big-huggy sympathy and the soundtrack to plinky piano). Rell’s persistent cogitations on what to do look almost deep compared to such knee-jerk displays, but he’s derailed as well, when he spends time with that original pretty girl, who turns out to be the pastor’s daughter, Tianna (Malinda Williams, whose close-fitting outfit is underscored by many references to the heat and broken air conditioner (“It’s hot as Satan’s toenails in here”). (Ding ding ding! Can you guess what Mr. Fix-It Durell will do? Bonus points if you can intuit how his hostages will react!)

Durell’s redemption is plainly the film’s raison d’être, with everyone else along for the ride. Of all these cartoonish supporting figures, the one who stands out as showing any semblance of sense is Katt Williams. That’s not just because he plays his usual fey pimp under the guise of Rickey the choir director (“You’re singing from a place of pain!”), but also because he of all the players appears to comprehend the unpleasantness of the entire exercise. “Hey Kirk Franklin!” Durell snaps, in an effort to put Rickey in his place. But Rickey will not back down, but instead, scrunches up his nose, offers asides that may or may not be scripted, and frequently raising his eyes to high heaven, Rickey acknowledges the limits of his role (“Our part is sangin'”) and comments more or less ironically on such limits at the same time.

This has become Katt Williams’ function more generally, the in-betweeny comic who can sling foul language as fast and furiously as any of his counterparts, while also making fun of the blingy macho swaggering once de rigeur and now so easily caricatured. It’s not that Williams’ stand-up (pimp chronicling or hustling) is completely original or that his wily antics alongside Cube, Morgan, Nick Cannon, or Eddie Murphy are always revelatory. But here he does appear to appreciate viewers’ likely impatience, and never takes himself or anyone else seriously.

RATING 2 / 10