Opens at Meridian and other theaters, Fri., Jan. 11. Rated PG-13. 96 minutes.
LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan) is the screwup-schemey one; Durell (Ice Cube), the should-know-better buddy. Their latest very awful idea: breaking into a neighborhood church to rob the fund-raising pot so that Durell can keep his kid (it's complicated/convoluted). As it happens, the board is meeting that night, the choir's come in for practice, the money turns up missing, and a standoff-cum-whodunit is now under way. Prolific playwright and author David E. Talbert's first feature starts off as straight ghetto capering, then evolves into an inner-city morality play as a night up close with church folk offers a lesson in Christian virtue and responsibility. At first the movie is overanxious—trying too hard to squeeze out laughs, pump up the soundtrack, ingratiate the audience—and the straining is abrasive. But once Talbert gets distracted with keeping the plot clunking along, the comedy eases into relaxed sideline banter. Trailers sell Katt Williams' supporting bit as a fey choir director hard, but Morgan butchers me every time with that overemphatic delivery thing that makes incidental lines multiplex-leveling funny. ("Let's take flight!") His couple of earnest dramatic scenes are, I should add, more honestly felt than anything in The Great Debaters.