It would be simple to call David E. Talbert—the first-time director of First Sunday—the poor man’s Tyler Perry. From their origins in theater to similarities in subject matter, the comparisons are there to be made. Heck, Talbert’s film even features a man in old-woman drag, à la Perry’s Madea meal ticket. And while the links are definitely there, it’s really an unfair assessment.
Talbert is smart enough to sidestep many of Perry’s shortcomings. Aside from distancing himself from Perry’s heavy-handed religiosity and occasionally specious moral code, Talbert at least attempts to make this look like a movie (though it seems Talbert has never met a scene he didn’t think would look neat in deep focus). The only problem is that Talbert comes with his very own set of flaws, namely a complete inability to create a coherent film.
Since Talbert also doubles as the film’s one and only credited writer, it’s his fault and his alone that First Sunday is such a mess. Characters who are in one scene are completely missing or forgotten in the next, while entire plot points are dropped with no payoff whatsoever, on top of the film’s good old unfunniness. It’s a pity, too, because Talbert actually shows a few glimmers of getting things right.
The film’s premise is simple. Two down-on-their-luck ne’er-do-wells—intelligent underachiever Durell (Ice Cube, in a role that’s more xXx: State of the Union (2005) than Three Kings (1999)) and terminal screw-up LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan, The Longest Yard)—decide to rob a church of its donation money. Each man has his own reason for the robbery: Durell needs the cash to stop his ex from leaving Baltimore for Atlanta with his son, while LeeJohn needs to pay off some angry Jamaicans for having lost their stolen wheelchairs (in the aforementioned forgotten subplot). Of course, complications arise, since during the course of the robbery, the duo encounter a church meeting and are forced to take hostages, only to find out the money has already been stolen by one of their captives.
The rest of the story is fairly predictable, though plot contrivances abound. There’s never any question of where this is going to end up, especially since the movie’s main setting is a church. But what Talbert does from this point is what makes the film a bit refreshing, even within the disaster of a movie it is.
Instead of ham-fisted, force-fed proselytizing, the film becomes more about the way in which a person should act as opposed to what a person should believe. Instead of promoting Christianity to the film’s already converted target audience, First Sunday alternatively promotes forgiveness and acceptance (while at the same time—whether purposely or unintentionally—not painting an exactly rosy picture of the church, especially when church politics and money are involved). And while this is a highlight in a pallid comedy, it’s not enough to keep the film from being the discombobulated mess it is. Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual humor and brief drug references.