Kingdom Come: D. Stevens
April 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Has this ever happened to you? Persnickety guy dies. Extended family of imperfect individuals gathers, each damn colorful, each with an ambivalent relationship to the deceased. Squabbles, laughs, tears ensue. Also reconciliation, celebration of family’s own damn colorfulness, and — not least — a peaceful farewell to the dead.

Hasn’t happened to me, either, but the idealized power of family to find strength in adversity is an irresistible theme, dream, and movie plot. In the trying, high-pitched comic drama Kingdom Come, African American self parody (of such stereotypes as the shrew, the cheating husband, the layabout, the gold digger, the church lady, the malaprop-prone minister, and the serene widowed matriarch, among other low humor targets) gives way to spiritual uplift and gospel singing. The structure and style are a staple of many traveling black stage shows (this one is based on ”Dearly Departed,” by David Dean Bottrell and Jessie Jones, who wrote the screenplay). What slays them in the second balcony, though, flattens on the screen.

Doug McHenry, who directed the theme-heavy drama ”Jason’s Lyric,” presides over so much mugging and eye rolling that early on there’s reason to believe he’s having fun with the genre by out-Klumping the Klumps. When it becomes clear he’s not — that the actors are, in some uneasy way, worth discussing with Spike Lee, bamboozled by the entertainment their stereotypical characters provide — then unease gives way to disappointment. And such actors! Such an attractive cast willing to ham! LL Cool J plays the responsible oldest son, Vivica A. Fox is his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith does the shrew, Toni Braxton assumes the gold-digger stance, Loretta Devine slaps her son upside the head as the church lady, Cedric the Entertainer rumbles as the reverend. And in the center square, Whoopi Goldberg fans herself as widow and matriarch. Somebody say mamma mia.

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