"First Sunday" will test just how starved for entertainment that audience is, as they are forced to muddle through a near-claustrophobic comedy that manages to be both predictable and preachy. Solid actors in supporting roles offer minor redemption, but pic will need the faithful to turn out in numbers to fill theatrical pews.
David E. Talbert comes with a legit pedigree similar to that of Tyler Perry, who has found a profitable niche catering to blacks and churchgoing folk with a mix of comedy and spiritual uplift. “First Sunday,” Talbert’s maiden feature, will test just how starved for entertainment that audience is, as they are forced to muddle through a near-claustrophobic comedy that manages to be both predictable and preachy. Solid actors in supporting roles offer minor redemption, but pic will need the faithful to turn out in numbers to fill theatrical pews.Ice Cube (who doubles as a producer) and Tracy Morgan co-star as a pair of down-on-their-luck buddies who need cash for different reasons: Durell (Cube) risks losing his son if he can’t help support his shrewish ex-wife (Regina Hall), while LeeJohn (Morgan) has gotten into trouble with hoods after a failed attempt to make money selling snazzy wheelchairs. So after stumbling into a run-down church and seeing the collection plate make the rounds, they hatch a not-very-bright idea: Rob the place. But the plan backfires, triggering a protracted hostage situation with several parishioners, the pastor (Chi McBride), his attractive daughter (Malinda Williams), the wisecracking choir director (comic Katt Williams), the slick deacon (Michael Beach) and the former pastor’s widow (Loretta Devine). Around this point, the movie grinds to a plodding halt, with lots of bickering and yelling, periodically interrupted by tried-and-true sob stories about various characters’ pasts. These flourishes are intended to provide a humanizing, heartwarming streak, but that’s virtually impossible given Morgan’s grating presence, which, with his mealy-mouthed delivery, proves as annoying as watching a grown man speak baby-talk. At times, Morgan runs his mouth as if he’s getting paid by the word. (This tendency also plagues NBC’s “30 Rock,” but at least there the compensating factors and his limited screen-time make the habit somewhat less irritating.) What little salvation “First Sunday” can find lies in the casting, from Cube’s inherent decency to McBride and Devine’s warmth to Olivia Cole in a small role as an elderly parishioner. Those contributions, however, occur more in spite of the hackneyed script than because of it, and the many shortcomings there (including perhaps the most idiotic court scene since “The Bonfire of the Vanities”) simply can’t be overcome. Talbert’s track record as the architect responsible for more than a dozen plays might very well carry over, and even a modest portion of Perry’s congregation would translate into box office success. Even so, sitting through the movie’s flabby midsection, there’s a nagging sense that it’s not just the characters who are being held hostage.