Since promising Armageddon in the leadoff bars of Straight Outta Compton, star/producer Ice Cube has been one canny career man. In recent years he has pulled up stake in the foundering rap game and doesn't seem to think twice about the cred damage that could come from pratfalling through PG family frolics. (Ice Cube is now less frightening to most Americans than Tipper Gore.) Instead of approaching the dispiriting task of spitting rhymes about "grown-man shit," Cube collects franchises and dutifully applies The Sneer to new projects, always careful to keep the narrow vistas of his actorly range in view.
The cornerstone of his Cube Vision productions is the low-investment high-return Friday series — three films down, with a fourth in the pipeline. First Sunday borrows its established game plan: Cube plays straight off a cockamamie buddy, with Tracy Morgan in the Chris Tucker/Mike Epps role. Durell (Cube) and LeeJohn (Morgan) are products of the streets of Baltimore. Both guys have work-in-progress rap sheets, but they're basically good-hearted; this is established by Durell taking time to walk his son to the school bus, and by the halfwit naiveté LeeJohn exudes. Circumstances press them toward desperate measures — Durell's son's mother is threatening to move their kid to Atlanta, and LeeJohn has gotten himself in arrears to some menacing Rastafarians.
Having to collect a certain amount of money before a certain looming deadline is the most basic of build-your-own-comedy templates, and here LeeJohn hatches a stupid plan to lift the fundraising pile from a neighborhood church. Breaking in, the guys run into an after-hours board meeting and then a choir practice (directed by Pimp Chronicler Katt Williams). A hostage situation develops, and for good measure, it just so happens nobody knows where the money is.
Cube's switch from Friday (house parties, the freakin' weekend) to Sunday (church and contrition) is significant. The film's trailer, which catalogues the movie's better lines and plays up the limited screen time of currently hot Williams, pushes it as a hood caper. Although the film begins that way, as soon as the street cats, clergy, and congregation get locked in close quarters, the subject shifts to Durell and LeeJohn's regeneration.
The movie actually gets significantly funnier when talking conversion, for the very fact that it stops straining for outrageousness and lets the comedy come from an easy sideline banter. There's enough comic talent on hand to keep the laughs dribbling; Morgan, whose stint on NBC's 30 Rock comes close to justifying the existence of network television, can say whatever in that stagey, emphatic delivery ("Let's take flight!") and audiences will bray on cue. But writer-director David E. Talbert seems in his element only when he's running his cast through the soulful, dramatic stuff. Otherwise he gooses the movie with desperate "Are we having fun yet!?" soundtrack cues while the big jokes — like a lavishly set up gay panic gag — feel like assignments, obligatory condescensions to perceived audience expectation. (Morgan and Williams, fleet ad-libbers, can largely transcend this.)
Talbert, a first-time feature director, made his name as a prolific playwright in the same "urban theater" circuit that begat Tyler Perry. Like Perry, Talbert has made a film that caters most to the conservative black churchgoing crowd — or at least tries to bring that audience into a détente with hip-hop kids. (For Cube it seems like another calculated expansion of his base.) A recent Los Angeles Times profile describes Talbert in the midst of a promotional tour, pitching his inspirational product to parishioners cross-country. As with Perry's work, if one can forbear preachifying, there's undeniable vitality here: a community meeting vibe and a variety revue's inter-genre recklessness. Sunday, at one point or another, tries out the trappings of a farcical heist, a whodunit, a morality play, a Borzage melodrama, and a courtroom nail biter. The result is often awkward but occasionally wonderfully unexpected: Morgan and Loretta Devine play a scene of conversion that is so abrupt, solemn, and nakedly sincere that, yes, I must have had something in my eye.