The comedy “First Sunday” sports a complex and gritty undertone. Nonetheless, much of the poverty and desperation—the serious thread that feeds the hilarity—will be missed by many.
Under the banner of Cube Productions, owned by Ice Cube, who also stars in this tale, “First Sunday” offers a storyline of unflinching candor, plump with quips and sly cultural asides that fly by quickly even for those hip to the jive.
Durell (Ice Cube) and Lee-John (Tracy Morgan), friends since grade school, share a deep rapport rooted in true affection, patience, and a shared experience of working against the odds.
As characters of director/writer David E. Talbert whose previous work lies in African-American theatre, Durell and Lee-John recall some of the better efforts of past comedy teams such as Martin and Lewis or Abbot and Costello.
With Cube playing the straight man to Morgan’s not-so-quick but good-hearted bungler, the two also visit comedic territory not so far moved from some of the disreputable racial comedy of yesterday. But there’s no mockery, buffoonery or mugging here. Morgan walks that fine tragicomedy line with the grace of tightrope walker.
We find the two buddies living in Baltimore, down on their luck—it’s never been otherwise.
Durell needs a hunk of cash to give to his ex-wife. Otherwise she moves to Atlanta, taking his son with her.
Lee-John, dealing with a chronic financial crisis, creates an even bigger one when he agrees to sell some hot blinged-out wheel chairs for the local Jamaican gangsters. He no sooner has the merchandise than he loses it out the back of his van while being chased by the police. The slapstick sequence ends with the duo in court and the chairs long gone.
Now even deeper in the hole with the Jamaicans demanding their money, the two, in a breach of their own ethical code, decide to rob the neighborhood church. Waiting till nightfall, Lee-John executes a bit of second-story work and the pair slips into what will be a truly religious experience.
Unexpectedly, they find the house of God occupied by several congregants, including the choir.
The safe is unlocked at gunpoint and the robbers find that someone has beaten them to the dough, a surprise to the church members as well, creating new dilemmas.
Durell and Lee-John can’t steal money they can’t find and the hostages, realizing the real thief is one of their own, begin to squabble with the intruders and themselves.
In these vigorous exchanges, heated and insightful, lies the heart of “First Sunday”—the not-so-pleasant realities of ghetto living imparted through witticisms and displays of deep compassion.
Unfortunately “First Sunday” spends too much time here and bogs down, the audience occasionally finding itself captive with the flock.
“First Sunday” will not cross over to white audiences with much ease, and may even have problems with more sophisticated blacks, long removed from the ghetto.
But for those with whom it resonates, they will find moments of magic, however uneven. Tracy Morgan, given the opportunity to stretch out, shows surprising breadth and agility. Katt Williams, as the flamboyant choir director, threatens to go over the top, but keeps a measure in his sweet and timely retorts.
It may seem like Ice Cube as producer has missed his mark here. He hasn’t. He knows what he’s doing. He’s after authenticity, rather than just the appearance of it.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read all of Examiner's movie reviewers.