Family life and death

Nice mix of attitudes

Review: In the charming `Kingdom Come,' the characters' frenzied personalities fuse into a smooth, unified story line.

April 11, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Edward Albee once said that a play is a comedy if the characters get what they want. In the relaxed and delightful "Kingdom Come," the characters can't always get what they want. But in the words of that other theatrical philosopher, Mick Jagger, they get what they need. Plus, they're just plain funny.

The movie is based on the play "Dearly Departed" by David Dean Bottrell and Jessie Jones, who also wrote the screenplay. In the opening minutes, a rough old coot drops dead from a stroke while his wife (Whoopi Goldberg) reads him a long-winded letter from his Bible-spouting sister (Loretta Devine). The mechanism of the ensuing farce works like velveteen-lined clockwork; it's the suspense of seeing an edgy, dispersed family reunite for a funeral.

The deceased's hardworking older son (LL Cool J) hasn't been able to have a child with his comely, even-tempered wife (Vivica A. Fox). He resents his younger brother (Anthony Anderson), a dreamer who sank all his money into the dubious invention of a parking-lot polisher, spawned "demon-possessed" kids, and has a wandering eye despite a beautiful spouse of his own (Jada Pinkett Smith). This wife is ready to wipe her hands of the whole clan - including the formidable Devine. And Devine's rapscallion son (Darius McCrary) taunts her with the prospect of finding a good Christian woman and having babies so he can "get on welfare."

When the time comes for an epitaph for her husband, Goldberg suggests "mean and surly."

As far as internecine conflict goes, that's simply the tip of the headstone. Yet what makes the picture pleasurable is how the director, Doug McHenry, puts his performers in a warm domestic groove and keeps them there for an hour and a half.

Too often in movies, we wonder how a director could place so many discordant personalities into a nuclear family, or fail to meld even sympatico souls into one believable unit. The family in "Kingdom Come" hums to a robust shared vibe. In our pop-psychology era, their household might be dubbed "dysfunctional." But the term never occurred to me watching the movie, because everyone confronts each other honestly.

They shout in family cars and wrestle in the living room, but as a result they get at a truth that sets them free. A couple of plot turns are overly heartwarming and convenient. Still, this picture's aim is true. It wants kinfolk to accept each other as they are and build on that reality, rather than cover up their rifts with bogus sentimental gestures.

Both male leads cannily stoke slow burns. LL Cool J's wide-eyed glare signifies an embattled sanity; Anderson's squishy-eyed scowls express his character's attempt to rise above a self-defeating screwiness. For once, Goldberg holds herself to a simmer - and she's better this way.

On the other hand, Loretta Devine (as fans of "Boston Public" know) is phenomenal at creating a character from extravagant outbursts, making her silent moment of communion with her son all the more dear.

Whether it's from beginner's luck or innate musical rhythms, singer Toni Braxton displays crack timing in the role of a rich, svelte relative. And Cedric the Entertainer (of "The Original Kings of Comedy") is deft as a lisping preacher who wills his mouth around every word.

"Help us see the promise of a better tomorrow," he prays, "for what is yesterday but the tomorrow we couldn't face the day before?" He almost makes tautologies sound wise.

The movie has smaller drolleries too, such as the entire character of Goldberg's daughter, Delightful (played by Masasa), who never stops eating. "Kingdom Come" is modest, tasty, and it goes down easy, like home cooking.

`Kingdom Come

Starring LL Cool J, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox, Toni Braxton and Whoopi Goldberg

Directed by Doug McHenry

Rated PG

Released by Fox Searchlight

Running time 95 minutes

Sun score * * *

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