In court for hustling tricked-out wheelchairs, Durell (Ice Cube) stands calmly as his well-meaning defender (Kim Staunton) pleads his case to the judge. “He’s a perfect example of potential without purpose!” she implores. As for Durell’s best frenemy and co-defendant LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan), well, his whole life as a former foster care kid has been so pitiful, he’s just one of those aimless youths who needs to be given a chance. Speaking for all of us critically taking in Cube and Morgan’s wrinkles and eye bags, the white prosecutor (P.J. Byrne) smacks his hands on his desk and shouts, “Your honor, these are grown ass men!” What’s interesting about writer-director David E. Talbert is that even though we’re supposed to hiss at the man, he stealthily takes his side. First Sunday isn’t good and it certainly isn’t funny; it’s a curio—a sugar pill that wants to give a vitamin to urban black men like Durell and LeeJohn who Talbert sees as misguided, myopic, and worst of all—whiners.
Freshly released, Durell and LeeJohn have a week to come up with $30,000 to pay off two violent Jamaicans and Durell’s baby momma Omunique (Regina Hall) to keep her from uprooting her hair salon and Durell Jr. (C.J. Saunders) from Baltimore to Atlanta. Naturally, they decide to rob a church, and this being one of the rowdy, stomping megaplexes that survives on donations from lonely old women, there’s an ATM in the lobby and a stack of bills in the bank. But this night, the church isn’t empty. Upstairs, the pastor (Chi McBride), his hardheaded daughter (Malinda Williams), and kindly Sister Doris (Loretta Devine) bicker with the Deacon (Michael Beach) over what to do with the cash. And downstairs in a prim suit, gravel-voiced kitten Katt Williams directs his choir while sweating it like Richard Simmons. We’re tacitly rooting for Ice Cube—until Kanye, he was hip-hop’s cuddliest rapper—but there’s an unexpected jolt when the robbery goes awry and he pulls a gat from his tube sock and points it at the parishioners. It’s Cube’s whole career in a trigger click: the teddy bear pretending to be a thug, or is it the thug pretending to be a teddy bear?
Talbert’s film is full of these paradoxical sleights of hand. Supporting player Williams (who has less screen time than the posters suggest) is a father of eight who’s built his career on playing flamers for homophobes. And the movie itself is a preachy drama posing as a comedy to lure in potential converts to its message of personal accountability.
En route to Durell and LeeJohn learning to man up and stop blaming their poor decisions on bad childhoods and societal oppression, Cube scowls and puts on his invisible detective hat when the would-be robbers learn one of the devout has already stolen their tithings and Morgan, his face looking ever more like a melted bust of Caesar, mumbles like he’s drunk on Nyquil, sounds continually surprised by the words coming out of his mouth, and gets massaged by—gasp!—a man. When Morgan’s immature self-victimizer has his big teary revelation that not only doesn’t he know his real dad, but he’s never had a birthday, the tone is empathetic but impatient. Big whoop, now get a Kleenex and put down the gun. And in a climactic speech, aged churchgoer Momma T looks Ice square in the eye and tells him that instead of insisting that he’s desperate to keep his son, he needs to admit that he deserves to lose him.
Like everything else in the film, it’s near-hit that just misses the target thanks to Talbert’s inability to pin down exactly what kind of movie he wants to make, a slapstick sermon or an urban tragicomedy? No one else in the film seems to know either, so when Morgan pauses before a portrait of MLK and protests, “I didn’t kill the dream!” we’re not sure whether he even believes himself.