From the opening credits of “Barbershop,” it’s clear that Ice Cube has come a long way since “Next Friday.”
A montage of soft-focus, black-and-white photos tip-toes inoffensively across the screen. There are no guns, no gangstas, and no grass. Just a few barbers doing their thing at the barbershop, which the opening sequence establishes as a modern day salon, or, as Cedric the Entertainer puts it, “our very own country club.”
This is not your typical Ice Cube movie. The veteran of “Boyz N the Hood” and the “Friday” movies leaves the gang-banging world he knows so well from movies and music, opting for a film that focuses on a neighborhood. Since crime and violence are largely absent, director Tim Story leaves ample time for his characters to converse and interact with humor and intelligence.
Not much else about “Barbershop” is refreshing. The characters are typical, punchlines and plots are easy to predict. But the film does have some genuinely laughable moments, and it must be praised for its unconventionality in dealing with historical and contemporary racial topics.
Ice Cube plays soon-to-be father Calvin, a big dreamer who will soon have big problems. Funding his various business ventures — including a recording studio that literally explodes in his face — has lost Calvin his good credit record. Despite a cautionary (and quite stagy) conversation with his wife, Calvin attempts to sell the family barbershop to loan shark Lester Wallace. When Calvin wants to cancel the deal, Lester demands double his money, and it looks like the end of the shop.
After introducing a few other characters and a hilarious robbery subplot, the film finally enters the barbershop of its title. The interim is a bit slow-paced; the film should have revolved solely around the barbershop, instead of deviating into other locales and neighborhoods.
Once the barbershop opens and all the barbers are at their chairs, the fun begins. The soundtrack pumps up from the lackadaisical P. Diddy and Fabolous number “Trade It All Part 2” to Marvin Gaye and Eve, who also stars in the flick.
The characters are easily titled and categorized — there’s even a roll call in the trailer. In her acting debut, Eve plays Terri Jones, “the Hothead,” who spends most of her time bitching about her stolen apple juice. She does have the right attitude mingled with a good amount of poignancy that interrupts her deafening tirades.
Sean Patrick Thomas of “Save the Last Dance” infamy plays Jimmy James, the local smart-ass who lists off trivia that wouldn’t even be interesting enough for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” His clashes with Isaac, the white guy who thinks he’s black (another typical character), are amusing if expected. Also unsurprising is Jimmy’s comeuppance and redemption when one of the other barbers outsmarts him.
Besides these characters, there is troubled Ricky (Michael Ealy), who’s on his second strike, and Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), the much-ridiculed African native.
The characters themselves are unoriginal and uninspired, but their chemistry is palpable. “Barbershop” is an ensemble movie at heart, despite Cube’s predominant and boring role as the troubled shop owner. Some of the scenes retain the stagy superficiality of the film’s beginning, but most are quick-paced and engaging.
Some of the most unexpected moments come when the barbershop becomes a salon, when barbers and clients discuss issues ranging from Rosa Parks (“all she did was sit her black ass down”) to minstrel shows (Jimmy insults Isaac- “You’re Al Jolsen in a Fubu hat”).
Screenwriter Mark Brown should be credited with elevating the barbers from idle chatter to serious arguments. One of the most dramatic moments has Ricky delivering a fiery speech against reparations and the so-called cult of victimization.
Unfortunately, Brown doesn’t treat important moments of the plot with as much respect. Although he admirably enlivens the ensemble moments — complemented by rapid cuts and close-ups — Brown mires emotional moments in platitudes, made more unbearable by sentimental muzak playing in the background.
Poor Cedric the Entertainer is charged with delivering many of these hackneyed monologues. As Eddie, the cotton-haired senior citizen who’s seen everything go down at the barbershop, Cedric is the film’s Yoda. Well, if Yoda whistled at women and had his own special barber tools with marble handles.
The day at the barbershop ends with a great Marvin Gaye song, “Got to Give It Up,” that ties together the movie’s many characters, wherever they happen to be, tightening and uniting the ensemble as Spike Lee did in “Do the Right Thing.”
Taken as a slice-of-life picture, “Barbershop” succeeds in offering the audience quick snapshots of characters who lack long histories and the baggage that comes with them. The day in which the film takes place is not a particularly exciting one, since the characters are unaware of Cube’s travails. The plots external to the shop are less interesting, but at least they don’t detract from the film’s greatest achievement: to be a picture about the ‘hood without being a picture about violence.