First Sunday

Tyler Perry’s success with church-going black audiences may not have earned him much credit in mainstream Hollywood yet, but it has gotten him something else: imitators. As if Perry’s own films weren’t bad enough, now we have to contend with ill-begotten rip-offs of them? Heaven help us.

“First Sunday” is like Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” or “Madea’s Family Reunion” in that it awkwardly tries to combine broad, clownish humor with emotional sentiment and religious fervor. The concoction is unpleasant, to say the least. The comedy isn’t funny, the emotion is contrived, and the spirituality feels forced.

It’s the first theatrical film by David E. Talbert, who, like Perry, is a prolific playwright and a director of straight-to-video comedies. This one concerns a couple of petty Baltimore criminals named Durell (Ice Cube) and LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan), who have serious money problems. LeeJohn owes some bad Jamaicans cash due to a scheme that I didn’t quite follow that pertained to a van full of wheelchairs (?), while Durell’s ex-girlfriend Omunique (Regina Hall) is going to move — with his young son — to Atlanta unless she can come up with $17,000 for the lease on her hair salon. She isn’t asking Durell to come up with the money, but he knows it’s the only way to keep his son nearby.

After a half-hour of sidetracks and shenanigans (the guys go to a massage parlor, and LeeJohn’s masseuse turns out to be a dude, if you can imagine anything so hilarious), LeeJohn and Durell wander into a church one Sunday just in time to learn that the congregants have raised quite a bit of money for building renovations. Why not sneak back in later tonight and steal the cash from the church’s safe?

It is LeeJohn’s idea; LeeJohn is simple-minded and a little crazy. Durell, slightly more practical, is appalled by the notion of robbing a church. Nonetheless, he realizes it is the ONLY WAY to keep his son from being taken away. THE ONLY WAY, PEOPLE!!! What do you expect him to do?!

Strangely, Durell goes from being reluctant to being fully committed, to the point that he brings not one but two guns for the job. When it turns out the church board is meeting late that night and the thugs are caught in the act of breaking into the safe, Durell takes everybody hostage. The problem now is that the cash that was supposed to be in the safe is already missing: Someone has stolen the money that Durell and LeeJohn were planning to steal.

The bulk of the film is set in the chapel, where Durell keeps everyone while trying to determine who has the money. There has been a lot of strife at the church. The deacon (Michael Beach) wants to use the funds to move the church out of the ghetto, while Pastor Mitchell (Chi McBride) and his daughter Tianna (Malinda Williams) want to stay in the community. The spazzy gay choir director, Rickey (Katt Williams), offers nothing except lame one-liners based on misunderstandings, e.g., when someone says some funds have been put into an escrow account, he says, “Who’s Escrow? He don’t even go to this church”; when someone calls LeeJohn and Durell “miscreants,” he says, “‘Miscreants’?! We are African American!”

Rickey is a prime example of Tyler Perry’s influence: the character who doesn’t fit in the movie. (Perry’s Madea always sticks out like a sore thumb, too.) Most of the other characters, while comedic, at least resemble real people. Rickey is simply a cartoon, a sketch-comedy figure — which is fine, but not when he’s the only (or almost the only) character like that. It’s hard to take anything about the film seriously when it’s being pulled down to his level of buffoonery.

(See also: the old woman in the church-board meeting who is played by a young man in drag. I’m trying to remember the last African American comedy I saw that did not include a man dressed as a woman, but my memory comes up short. And how come the character disappears in the middle of the hostage situation? Was the actor only contracted for one day of filming?)

The story alternates between being dull and being ludicrous, culminating in a courtroom scene that’s so inept and implausible as to be surreal. All of the film’s attempts at sentiment fail, partly because Ice Cube is no better at conveying emotion than an actual ice cube would be, and partly because Talbert isn’t competent enough as a writer or director to pull off the sudden shifts in tone. The film is an embarrassment from start to finish.

What the heck, one more stupid joke from Rickey:

DEACON: The community is affecting us!
RICKEY: I’m not infected, I have papers to prove I’m not infected.

What is this, a minstrel show?

D- (1 hr., 36 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, a little vulgarity.)