At a recent screening for his feature film debut, "First Sunday" director David E. Talbert told the audience they were about to see the culmination of 15 years of work.
Having watched the finished product, it seems reasonable to assume Talbert spent that time making 15 movies and then cut them into one disjointed, cartoonish crime caper.
LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan) and Durell (Ice Cube) are best friends who can't hold down jobs, mainly because LeeJohn keeps stealing things from their employers. Durell, we're informed during one of the pair's many court appearances, is exceptionally bright -- a claim that's backed up by his ability to repair any air conditioning unit but challenged repeatedly by his continued association with LeeJohn.
Ice Cube plays the straight man with a scowl and a chip on his shoulder; he's not acting here so much as stomping around with his upper lip curled in disdain. Morgan, whose wide-eyed man-child shtick is hilarious when he's working from a good script (see "30 Rock"), gets off a few funny lines but spends most of the movie phoning it in, albeit in a highly energetic fashion.
Desperate for some quick cash, the duo decides to rob a local church. Predictably, the robbery does not go smoothly; LeeJohn and Durell aren't particularly adept criminals, and their bungling attempts at hostage-taking land them in the middle of a contentious battle for control of the church. They tangle with an array of one-note characters, including the long-suffering pastor (Chi McBride), his no-nonsense daughter (Malinda Williams) and a screamingly effete choir director (played to the hilt by comedian Katt Williams).
If LeeJohn and Durell don't know what to make of their hostages, it's clear Talbert doesn't either. Between Morgan and Katt Williams tossing off increasingly manic one-liners, Ice Cube wrestling with a sappy subplot involving his son and estranged ex-wife and a steady stream of pat, fortune cookie-style moralizing on personal responsibility and the fate of America's inner cities, the movie is completely at odds with itself.
(Baltimore, also the setting for HBO's superlative drama "The Wire," is making something of a name for itself as the media's poster child for urban decay).
The movie's total lack of focus and its unimpressive script should render it totally unwatchable. Weirdly, that doesn't quite happen.
There's something endearing about these characters -- they, like the movie, are pretty ridiculous, but they're at least partly redeemed because Talbert has done something unexpected and unusual: He's made a nearly violence-free, pointedly hopeful movie that actually touches on a few of the big issues (joblessness, crime, community) facing American cities.
"First Sunday." MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, some sexual humor and brief drug references. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In wide release.