For all the much-deserved attention accorded HBO's The Wire these days, it's doubly depressing, by contrast, to see another story set in Baltimore - the cliched, moralistic comedy First Sunday - and watch a parade of African American stereotypes go marching by.
Where the corner boys and small-time hoods, the black clergy and slick attorneys in The Wire - every last one of them - walk and talk like real people, the similar milieu of writer/director David E. Talbert's First Sunday is stereotypical to the man, the woman, the child.
Drawing comparisons to The Wire may be unfair, but taken on its own, this anemic vehicle for Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan to mug and jive through is just weak, weak stuff.
Ice Cube is Durell, a brooding, bumbling petty thief who's learned that his ex (Regina Hall) is planning to move to Atlanta with their young son, Durell Jr. (C.J. Sanders), because she's in debt to the tune of $17,000. So, Durell and his buddy LeeJohn (Morgan) get an idea: They'll rob the First Hope church. There's a lot of money in there, and who believes in the Lord, anyway?
Needless to say, things don't go as planned: Durell and LeeJohn (his name? Well, Mama had two boyfriends, Lee and John, and she didn't know which one got her pregnant) break into the corner church only to find that the collection money is gone. And that the pastor (Chi McBride), the deacon (Michael Beach), the choir director (Katt Williams) and a number of parishioners (including Loretta Divine and Malinda Williams) are still there.
A long night of gun-wielding, hostage-taking and sermonizing ensues.
Ice Cube, no slouch as an actor, is one of the producers of First Sunday, and he must have seen something in the role of Durell, "a perfect example of potential with no purpose," as his judge puts it. And ultimately, the movie's message - that violence and thuggery are bad, as well as putting the blame on others instead of taking responsibility for one's actions - well, who can argue with that?
But do we need jokes about transvestite masseuses, overweight church ladies and flaming gay choir directors to get there?
First Sunday *1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by David E. Talbert. With Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Katt Williams, Loretta Divine and Chi McBride. Distributed by Screen Gems.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.