"First Sunday" is a sorry excuse for a ghetto SOS. Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan play Durell and LeeJohn, two Baltimore buddies who rob a shabby church. They do it for sentimental reasons. Durell is about to lose his son to Atlanta unless he raises the $17,342 needed to keep his ex's beauty shop open. Durell is a bright guy who once had sterling SAT scores. He's a whiz with an air-cooling system, too. But his life has been nothing but baby-momma drama and petty crime. This asinine church scam is LeeJohn's idea, but Durell seizes upon it like a true gangsta, pistols and all.
They hold hostage whoever's around that evening - Olivia Cole, Loretta Devine, Chi McBride, Malinda Williams, Michael Beach, Katt Williams - until someone coughs up the money, which apparently somebody else has already stolen. In the meantime, Cole and Devine love them tender and love them tough. Devine gives Morgan her gold crucifix. (When he cries in her arms, they're the tears of a clown.) Cole gives Ice Cube a lecture on how real dads don't commit felonies for their kids. These good lower-middle-class Christians love the crime right out of two criminals. Jesus saves, indeed.
The comic foolishness (LeeJohn runs screaming from his drag-queen masseur) dares to shine sunlight on a town that could use some. The movie isn't really about Baltimore in the way HBO's "The Wire" is about Baltimore. (For one thing, a lot of this movie's Baltimore looks like Los Angeles and nobody sounds like they're from Maryland.) But like that tremendously perceptive show, whose final season just got underway, "First Sunday" knows something is wrong. Unlike "The Wire," it's lousy and rigged for applause.
In the film's scheme of things, Durell and LeeJohn, with their long rap sheets and short job prospects (they had been sentenced to 5,000 hours of community service even before the church holdup) are the least of the community's woes. And so the movie invests in them - for the neighborhood's future - while finding another, worse villain to scapegoat. (For loaded symbolism, Durell conducts the heist wearing a camouflage hoodie over a baggy T-shirt printed with giant hundred dollar bills.) How Durell got so good at fixing air conditioners without turning that skill into a career is a mystery. It's probably supposed to be a little bit tragic, too.
The adults in this movie are a mess. But the children might have it worse. Durell's son doesn't know what the expression "plan B" means. Another little boy admits he hasn't been taught how to tuck in his shirt. It's enough to break your heart: The kids don't even have good grooming role models.
"First Sunday" is David E. Talbert's feature debut. Talbert is a huge success on the black theater circuit (he says he wants to be the black Neil Simon), and like his stage work, his movie throws together bawdy nonsense with a cup of gospel and a gallon of heart. In the comedy department, he has two chief ingredients. One is Morgan, who, between his work on "30 Rock" and here, has made an art of seeming naturally stupid. The other is Katt Williams, a standup comedian with a pimp shtick. He's very good in movies - his whiny voice, fey mannerisms, and upturned snout are like Prince's rodent cousin. When someone in a courtroom (Keith David plays the ferocious judge) states a fact about Durell and LeeJohn, Williams chimes in: "Miscreants? We are African-American!"
The women - mainly Malinda Williams and the usually hilarious Regina Hall (she's Durell's ex) - don't get to be funny. Maybe because the men are such screw-ups, the job of seriousness monotonously falls to the women. Along with the preacher and the choir, they're willing to heal the brothers holding them at gunpoint, to turn the other cheek and tell the judge there's been a mistake. "American Gangster" cut a similar moral compromise - these guys are bad, but only as bad as the neighborhood that has produced them. Second chances, change, and optimism all around. That is ludicrous. But from the standpoint of social justice, "First Sunday" deems it a necessary message. It wants this community to save itself. That's very Barack Obama. Even if this movie redefines the audacity of hope in the dopiest of ways.