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First Sunday

By Al Shipley | Posted 1/9/2008

On the Emmy-winning sitcom 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan plays Tracy Jordan, a black comic not unlike himself, who stars in fictitious movies where he tends to don either a fat suit, whiteface, or women's clothing (or all three, as in Honky Grandma Be Trippin'). It's a breakout role for Morgan, who after years as an underused Saturday Night Live repertory player is now famous enough to get his name on a movie poster. But it also puts him in something of a bind: Can he get away with making the same kinds of lowbrow flicks he lampoons on TV without looking like a hypocrite or, worse, someone who missed the point?

Morgan's first headlining theatrical role, in First Sunday, is not a movie that invites such accusations, but just barely--he doesn't dress up as an elderly woman, but comedian Rickey Smiley does. Morgan and Ice Cube play LeeJohn and Durrell, two unlucky friends who each, through a convoluted series of events, ends up in dire need of money--and fast. Their solution, a harebrained scheme to rob a local church where the collection plate does boffo business, sounds doomed from the start.

More than the robbery plan, though, the buddy dynamic quickly goes off the rails. Ice Cube does an abrupt 180 from being the smarter, more well-intentioned of the pair to the scary, gun-toting motherfucker he once played so convincingly in his recording career. And Morgan virtually disappears from the action, ceding comic-relief duty to Katt Williams, who plays one of the many church staffers whom Durrell and LeeJohn are surprised to find still in the building late one night. But perhaps the most gifted comic actor in the cast, Chi McBride, is grossly underused, spending most of the movie tied to a chair and barely getting a word in edgewise.

First Sunday was written and directed by David E. Talbert, a successful playwright on the urban theater circuit making the jump to the big screen like Tyler Perry before him. Talbert, a Washington native and Morgan State University grad, set First Sunday in Baltimore. But the movie was not shot on location, and its California streets, lined with BRT (Baltimore Rapid Transit) buses, bear little resemblance to the Greenmount Avenue where the story takes place. And despite the church setting, not much about First Sunday lives up to Talbert's reputation for inspirational Christian dramedy. The humor is often crass, and the message sent by the ending--essentially, that it's OK to rob a church if the pastor turns out to be corrupt--somehow doesn't feel very spiritual or uplifting.

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