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Of Gospel and Gangsta Rap

Brothers bridge a moral and musical divide in "Preaching to the Choir."

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As if to compensate for their lack of experience, the makers of this film about redemption through gospel music have smothered their work in good intentions. But not even the presence of Eartha Kitt can bring this negligible and amateurish work to life.

The film turns on the bad blood between a pair of brothers who are orphaned young under mysterious circumstances and whisked off to Harlem by their wise and wonderful Aunt June (Novella Nelson), whose reserves of love and advice are, one is led to believe, as deep as the Mariana Trench. In spite of her nurturing, the brothers endure a parting of the ways. One, Wesley (Darien Sills-Evans), becomes a pastor at his aunt's church, but the other (Billoah Greene) goes to the bad, rejecting his religion to pursue a career as a successful rap star, Zulu. When he gets into hot water with his producer (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje from television's "Lost"), who also happens to be the murderous chief of a trigger-happy posse, he returns to Harlem for the first time in years, hoping to escape his enemies by hiding out in the last place anyone would think to look for him: the home of his closest relatives.

Such impromptu family reunions can set the stage for any number of familiar plot developments, and this film tries to include as many as possible, throwing in a new story line every 15 minutes or so. The brothers quarrel about whether their father, a preacher, was a good man. There's sparring over Zulu's wicked ways and the sanctimony of his brother, who, in his ceaseless efforts to be pious, succeeds mostly in being a killjoy. ("That dance step was prideful," he chides his brother at one point.) Zulu leers at every attractive woman in the congregation, while his brother is preparing to wed his assistant in the Lord's work. Heavy-handed contrasts between the siblings sprout like weeds as the gun-toting record executive gradually homes in on his target.

What can possibly bring these two brothers together? Ah, the power of music. The church choir, it appears, has fallen on hard times, and the talented Zulu, unable to bear the spiritless singing, decides to whip it into shape and is thus lured back into the church in spite of his bad self.

It's all so corny that you're barely even surprised at the brazen, almost defiant, lack of originality on display when one character chirps, "With Zulu working here, you could win the Gospel Challenge." It's the first we've heard of this interdenominational sing-off, but, alas, not the last. It serves as the focus for all the film's questions. Can the choir be saved? Can Wesley's church be saved? Will his marriage come off as planned? Will Aunt June sing again? Will Zulu and Wesley find common ground? And what about the vengeful producer?

It's hard to take any of this very seriously or to enjoy it. As the "good" brother, Sills-Evans turns in a flat, joyless performance that doesn't win our sympathy even when he's confessing to the failures of his dreams for the church. Greene has an easier time being appealing as the rambunctious rapper, but his character still has the shallowness of a cartoon character. It's something of a relief, then, when the film abandons all pretense of sincerity by handling Akinnuoye-Agbaje's menacing character in absurdist fashion. He's a killer, but he's also a dandy, swishing across the screen in leopard-print silks while brandishing a silver-headed walking stick and preparing to deal death to his enemies. It's a measure of the dreariness of the rest of the film that such easy jokes are actually welcome. (PG-13) 103 min. * S

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