Ice Cube was once a member of the fiercely provocative gangsta rap group N.W.A. (for N****** With Attitude). He is now a prolific Hollywood producer with franchise films from R-rated (the Friday series) to family-friendly (Are We There Yet?). He is going for the PG-13 market with “First Sunday,” and it is more product than movie, filled with signifiers instead of story. It has the slapstick of a The Three Stooges short without the comic timing, the characters of “Hot Ghetto Mess” without the irony, and the stereotypes of Amos ‘n’ Andy without the wit.
Cube and “30 Rock’s” Tracy Morgan play Durell and LeeJohn, a hapless duo sentenced to community service after a series of petty infractions. Durell’s ex is about to move away, taking his son with her, unless he can give her the money she needs to open a beauty salon. LeeJohn needs to reimburse some bad guys for failing to make a delivery as promised. When Durell and LeeJohn find out that the local church has raised more than $200,000, they decide to steal it, and end up taking the deacon, the preacher, his bootylicious daughter, and the choir and choirmaster (comedian Katt Williams) hostage. They take the audience hostage as well because this section of the film seems to go on forever.
In between the tired jokes about guzzling sacramental wine, “pimped”-up wheelchairs, a masseur who turns out to be male, a developmentally disabled man, and a very tight skirt, there are very strong moments and performances that deepen our disappointment about what this movie could have been. The always-exquisite Olivia Cole appears as one of the hostages, bringing class and dignity to her too-brief moments on screen. The talented Regina Hall makes the most of her brief appearance as Omunique, Durell’s baby mama. Her part could easily have been a caricature, nothing but bling (check out those earrings) and shrill demands for money. But she is always real and appealing, making it clear that she may be a little desperate but that she is protective of the love Durell and his son have for each other. Williams, as ever, seems to be in his own movie, completely independent of whatever the screenplay and director had in mind, and his offbeat energy and subversive humor brighten the otherwise-interminable hostage scenes in the church sanctuary.
There are also brief glimpses of some themes well worth exploring. The characters debate the idea of rebuilding and expanding the church in its current location or moving it to somewhere less “urban” and “congested,” acknowledged code words for abandoning the poorer, more crime-ridden black community. The portrayal of the community’s commitment to fatherhood is welcome, as the hostages, gangsters, and his angry ex all unquestioningly support the bond between Durell and his son. But this is not enough to surmount the offensiveness of material so cynical and pandering it would have infuriated Ice Cube in his N.W.A. days. Attitude is just what this movie is missing.
Parents should know that this film has some strong language, some homophobic humor and other sexual references, and brief reference to drugs. Characters are repeat offenders who rob a church at gunpoint and hold people hostage. Another character embezzles money. There is some racial humor some audiences may consider insensitive or offensively stereotyped. A strength of the movie is the emphasis on families and the importance of commitment by fathers.
Families who see this movie should talk about how Durell showed his son how important he was to him. What did his son most want from him? Why did Durrell believe he had no other options? What will happen after the movie ends? Do you think the movie perpetrates stereotypes?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Barbershop, also produced by and starring Ice Cube.