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January 13, 2008 | Comments ()

By Agent Bedhead | Film | January 13, 2008 |


You know that Tyler Perry has finally and truly arrived when the cinematic copycats have crawled out of the woodwork with cloyingly coughed-up efforts that look like a hairball shot out of the wrong end. One such copycat, screenwriter and first-time feature film director David E.Talbert, also has tons of experience on the urban theatre circuit with several plays under his grassroots belt and, in First Sunday, he continues in the Tyler Perry tradition of purporting to abolish certain stereotypes while simultaneously pigeonholing his African-American characters into oversimplified clichés of racial descriptors. Talbert has studied his subject quite well, for even though his film takes place mostly in a church, there are plenty of fat jokes, lots of homophobia, and a full port-o-potty of bathroom humor. This is what Perry has wrought — he’s bravely opened the doors to other black directors who can now come in and combine philistine humor with Christian righteousness. The result, in First Sunday, is a disorienting blend of lowbrow comedy and often hurlworthy sentimentality that’s supposed to lead its audience toward religious inspiration. Instead, I found myself instead wanting to kneel at a ceramic altar for a lengthy session of devotion.

In First Sunday, Durell (Ice Cube) and LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan) are repeat offenders of the lamest petty crimes imaginable. Durell is, allegedly, an intelligent fellow with enough of an education to know better, but has nonetheless settled comfortably into the role of a deadbeat dad. LeeJohn, named for his mother’s two boyfriends at the time of conception, is a pothead in search of his potato-chip fix. Both men have been sentenced to community service for trying to sell some stolen, pimped-out wheelchairs. While picking up trash on the streets of Baltimore, Durell is visited by the wheelchairs’ gangster suppliers, who have come to collect their money. Then, Durell’s baby mama (an entirely wasted Regina Hall) tells him that she’s moving away from Baltimore if she can’t make the next payment for her beauty salon’s lease. So, Durell must either kiss his son goodbye or come up with a quick $17,000. Although he hates the idea of robbing a church, he sees no other solution to his money problems, so he lets LeeJohn talk him into stealing the building fund of a local church. Durell’s desperate circumstances pale in comparison to the novel possibility of not living a life of crime and, just maybe, holding down an actual job to make money. Yet we take Durell and LeeJohn as we find them, and when they break into the church, they find that the entire congregation is present. Ooh, awkward. To make matters even worse, the church’s safe just happens to be empty, and the assumption is made that someone in the building still has the money. This state of affairs quickly escalates into a hostage situation with Durell and LeeJohn holding the churchgoers at gunpoint.

Within the group of devout churchgoers, a few characters deserve brief mentions. Chi McBride, whose last movie effort was the charming Brothers Solomon, materializes as the church pastor, who spends most of his onscreen time tied to a chair. Loretta Devine appears as the church secretary who triggers a bewildering outburst of tears from Tracy Morgan. Stand-up comic Katt Williams is a flamboyant choir-director in the mold of Tyler Perry’s Madea character. Finally, there is a “white Jesus” print on the wall that repeatedly freaks out LeeJohn, who is apparently allergic to the thought of a white person looking at him. All of this, somehow, causes Durell and LeeJohn to seek and receive redemption by the end of the film.

Ironically, Ice Cube, who also produces, once rapped: “Ice Cube. Is not for the pop charts.” Yet, his move through mainstream cinema couldn’t be more disheartening. After some respected dramatic roles, Ice Cube zipped through the Friday trilogy straight into a series of passable comedies followed by a vainglorious excursion into family-friendly snoozefests. Throughout most of these movies, Ice Cube pretty much does the same character: a scowling, gruff, eyebrow-raising personification of inertia. Somehow, in the first Friday film, Ice Cube clicked with his movie sidekick, Chris Tucker, with a great rapport that reminiscent of Amos and Andy. Ever the master of stoic reserve, Ice Cube decided to make two rather worthless sequels, Next Friday and Friday After Next without Tucker. Fast forward to the duo in First Sunday, Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan, who have less chemistry than cryogenic copies of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez trying to heat up a blow torch. Ice Cube grumbles far too much to pull off the bighearted Durell, while Morgan belies his generally hilarious presence on “30 Rock” by demonstrating a sheer lack of comic timing as well as an all-around awkwardness, which is perhaps best illustrated by an overplayed crying scene during his character’s redemption.

First Sunday also fails in other major ways, but most of the blame lies with the script that tries to do too much in a very lackadaisical manner. Supposedly, this ineffective morality play functions as a farce, which seems to be a convenient label that really stupid movies rely upon to explain away their lack of coherence. Overall, the filmmakers of First Sunday make the assumption that African-American audiences will automatically enjoy and support any movie that features black actors. This presupposes a certain Tyler Perryesque formula, and to Perry’s credit, he does have it going on in terms of coherent scripting and editing work in his films. Yet with the copycat filmmakers, their formulaic approach could use some serious refining. Indeed, an example of this sloppiness appears towards the end of First Sunday, in which an urban Baltimore street contains a row of … palm trees.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.

Makin' a Sucker and You Equal. Don't Be Another Sequel ...

First Sunday / Agent Bedhead

Film | January 13, 2008 | Comments ()




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