First Sunday (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Based purely on the misleading trailers that herald First Sunday's arrival in theaters, one might be forgiven thinking this is another dumb comedy about individuals characterized by a shortage of brain cells. However, while the film occasionally falls into sit-com traps, it aspires to be more than the marketing clips lead us to believe. This is the directorial debut of noted playwright David E. Talbert, and it mixes comedy with drama to generally good effect. There are awkward moments and the ending feels excessively contrived, but there are things to like about First Sunday, most of which are not hinted at in the trailers and TV commercials.

In a way, it's surprising that the movie was cast adrift into the January wasteland rather than being released before Christmas. The themes of redemption and family that highlight First Sunday are perfect December fare. (One assumes the presence of two African American-centered holiday movies created fears of flooding the marketplace.) At any rate, while First Sunday isn't a home run, it makes more solid contact than what one normally expects from this time of the year.

The premise sounds shaky. Friends Durell (Ice Cube) and LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan) need money badly. Unless he can come up with $17,000 in child support, Durell's ex (Regina Hall) is going to move to Atlanta with Durell's son. Meanwhile, LeeJohn is in trouble with some people it's not desirable to be in trouble with. He lost some merchandise entrusted to him to deliver and now he's on the hook for the price. The apparent solution to their problem: rob a church that is accumulating cash on the premises to build a new house of worship. Of course, when the time comes to rob the place, nothing goes right and Durell and LeeJohn find themselves taking hostages, including the Pastor (Chi McBride), the Deacon (Michael Beach), the Choir Master (Katt Williams), and several others.

For the most part, the comedy is understated, which is unusual. While not all of the jokes work (in fact, some of them misfire badly), there are enough low-key chuckles to retain a light tone. Katt Williams, whose X-rated standup routines have been scaled back to work in a PG-13 forum, is responsible for about 50% of the most overt comedy. Thankfully, the movie does not rely on body humor and/or flatulence gags, two staples of comedy that have lost their edge and effectiveness through overuse.

First Sunday has a solid dramatic backbone. Durell genuinely loves his son and wants him to grow up to be a better man than he is. His motivation for "stealing from God" is to keep his boy close. LeeJohn, despite initially being the "funny" sidekick, is revealed to have a deeper personality than initially expected. Many of the hostages also have backstories that the screenplay takes time to divulge. In cases, these become more than "colorful" faces populating a background. They grow into people.

From a comedic perspective, Williams steals a high percentage of scenes, but Tracy Morgan is also solidly funny when the script requires it (which is often, especially early). Ice Cube plays the straight man, and often resembles a scowling teddy bear. Over the years, the rapper-turned-actor has honed his skills in front of the camera; he's a much better dramatic performer today than he was a decade ago. Chi McBride, who has found some recent success on television (as a limited-run villain in House and in a recurring role in Pushing Daisies), makes the pastor a nice mix of spirituality and worldliness. Keith David has a small role as the exasperated judge who presides over Durell's court cases.

The ending is a letdown. Emotionally, it offers catharsis and closure but it's rushed, contrived, and does a poor job of closing off at least one loose end. As a screenwriter, it's not Talbert's finest moment and does a degree of damage to the careful development of the characters and situations that precede it. It's not enough to invalidate all of the good things sprinkled throughout First Sunday; the movie as a whole is pleasant, generally satisfying, and has a heart as big as its funny bone. For an early January movie, this is sometimes as good as it gets.

First Sunday (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2008-01-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1