They're not perfect, but they are family.
Nothing brings out the best and worst in all of us like an important family occasion. Weddings and funerals provide us with an opportunity to see our relatives and reacquaint ourselves with all their habits and idiosyncrasies. Putting that many family members together in one place also often gives us ample opportunity to reminisce, laugh, and embarrass ourselves. Kingdom Come is the story of one family doing all of the above.
Facts of the Case
When mean, surly old Bud Slocumb keels over at the breakfast table, his family gathers around to pay their last respects. His son Ray Bud (LL Cool J) is the respectable, hard-working one in the family, but fights feelings of inadequacy and memories of a battle with the bottle. Ray Bud's wife Lucille (Vivica A. Fox—Independence Day) is the family trooper, organizing the funeral and the food, but secretly grieving over an inability to have children. Bud's eldest son, Junior (Anthony Anderson) is a dreamer on the brink of financial ruin, an inventor with an invention nobody wants. Junior's wife Charisse (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a screeching harridan who harps on his failures and reminds him how, had things turned out differently, she could have been "lap tied" to his cousin, a wealthy lawyer.
Also turning up to pay their last respects are Bud's sister Marguerite (Loretta Divine) and her no-account son, Royce (Darius McCrary). Marguerite is a very religious woman, or at least takes great pains to make sure she gives that impression. Royce, on the other hand, likes to drink and chase women; Marguerite (affectionately?) refers to him as "Satan."
The calm in the middle of this storm in Bud's widow, Raynelle Slocumb (Whoopi Goldberg—Sister Act, The Color Purple, Ghost). She watches the antics of the family around her, allowing her annoyance with them to distract her from her rather mixed feelings about her recently departed husband.
There is a lot to like about Kingdom Come, much more than I expected. I was pleasantly surprised by many of the acting performances. I was particularly impressed with the combo of LL Cool J and Vivica A. Fox as Ray Bud and Lucille. We learn a lot about these two characters, and come to see them as solid, dependable people even in the face of personal struggles and turmoil. LL Cool J is very good in his role, playing Ray Bud as a man of real strength and inherent goodness. Ray Bud has a series of significant moments in this movie, including the only real, significant religious moment shown on screen, and LL Cool J did a fine job portraying him. Vivica A. Fox also gives a much more substantial performance than I had expected, playing the role of the dutiful wife and daughter-in-law with her deep, unrequited desire for a child and the sorrow of a number of failed pregnancies.
Kingdom Come is a Fox DVD release. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen, in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is sharp and clear, with rich, vibrant colors. I could not detect any noteworthy video defects. This is an outstanding transfer. It allows the beautiful cinematography filled with rich, golden light to jump out and soothe the viewer's eyes.
Two audio options are available. There is Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround. The 5.1 mix is not notably aggressive, but it is sharp and clear, with adequate use of the rear channels for surround effects. There is one scene involving a wild car ride that puts the full sound system to good use, and this scene shows that the audio is up to par, but for the most part the sound system is used more subtly, to very good effect.
There is a decent amount of extra content on this disc. There is a video featurette that runs 4:40, and focuses mostly on the soundtrack. Kirk Franklin is the artist responsible for most of the music in the film, and he talks about his desire to combine traditional gospel themes and messages with a contemporary, perhaps even hip-hop, sound. The final result is quite pleasant. Also included is a music video for "Thank You," one of Franklin's songs used in the picture. There is also a theatrical trailer and four TV spots included; these are pretty much unremarkable.
The centerpiece of the extra content is a feature length commentary by Doug McHenry, the director of Kingdom Come. I find that commentary tracks for smaller, independent type films are usually among the most informative, and McHenry's track is no exception. He covers the problems involved in getting financing to make the picture, until Whoopi Goldberg got involved. He talks a lot about his various shooting techniques and what he tried to convey in a number of scenes. He made it clear that he has a lot of affection for his subject matter, specifically African-American families. McHenry comes across as pleasant and sincere in his commentary, and I came away from it with a much greater appreciation of his movie, which is the most anyone can ask from a commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is interesting to note that Kingdom Come is actually adapted from a stage play entitled "Dearly Departed." Moviemakers have throughout their history adapted a lot of stage material for the screen. In the early days of film, especially in the silent era, a lot of screen acting borrowed heavily from the large, expansive expressions and gestures of the stage. I mention this because it is a tradition that Jada Pinkett Smith has evidently taken upon herself to keep alive. Her overblown hysterics are like a bamboo splinter under the toenails every time she appears on screen. She struts, frets, and mugs her way through the movie, unable at last even to laugh or cry with any measure of believability.
On the other end of the spectrum is Whoopi Goldberg. I understand that Whoopi's character, Raynelle, is supposed to provide a center of calm to the proceedings, and that she is supposed to be the weary matriarch. However, I wonder if she didn't understate the character a bit too much; with the exception of one memorable scene opposite LL Cool J it was hard to believe Raynelle was from the same planet as the rest of the characters, let alone related to them all.
The overall tone of Kingdom Come is distractingly uneven. It lurches from heartwarming family drama to broad humor so fast that it leaves the viewer uncomfortable, unsure whether to take the characters and proceedings seriously or not. Typical of this indecision is the movie's treatment of Reverend Hooker (Cedric the Entertainer). For most of the movie Reverend Hooker is played for laughs, a lisping, clueless dolt. At one crucial juncture he appears and saves Ray Bud from making a disastrous decision; moments later, he is made the butt of flatulence/toilet humor, robbing the character of whatever shred of dignity he might have had. There is also a disturbing bit where it is discovered that the corpse of honor is wearing ballet slippers, since rigor mortis had already struck his feet and the undertaker was unable to put shoes on him. This joke seems to be contrived and unnecessarily tasteless. I have been to my share of funerals, and never once have I seen one where the deceased's feet were visible. The setup for this joke isn't credible, and the payoff seems too weird to be funny.
However, the worst insult in the movie comes at the expense of Ray Bud and Lucille, two characters whom we really grow to like as the story unfolds. Early in the picture there is a scene where Ray Bud and his brother Junior reconnect, and Ray Bud shares a deeply personal, traumatic experience that happened to him and Lucille. The incident itself is fairly horrifying, but in a way that seems plausible, like something that really could happen to this couple. It is a hard moment, but a rewarding bit of character information. However, this deeply personal moment is used later on as setup for a ghastly comic payoff at the climax of a raucous slapstick sequence. This comes across as tasteless and more than a little bit cruel.
There are parts of Kingdom Come that are very funny, parts that are moving, and some that try to be one or the other but don't hit the right note. The main problem for me is that the whole doesn't fit together very well, and the abrupt changes in tone and attitude are disorienting. To be sure, this makes it a good depiction of what happens at many family funerals, but it makes for a flawed and uneven movie.
The jury is still out on Kingdom Come. I don't want to be too hard on it, but on the other hand it does have some serious flaws, both in tone and performances.
Fox is acquitted, and released with the thanks of the court for a solid DVD presentation.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Ken Franklin Soundtrack Featurette
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