Here’s a pleasant surprise — the first such of the fall movie season. Warm, funny, and with a kind of street-smart Frank Capra “message,” Barbershop is a movie that is probably not going to do the kind of business it ought to do because of misconceptions as to what kind of movie it is. If you’re expecting the raunchy humor and dope jokes that festoon such “masterpieces” as The Wash (also starring a rapper turned actor), then you’re in for a surprise. There’s not a single weed reference in Barbershop and its humor — while hardly free of innuendo (check out the discussion of J-Lo’s backside) — tends to be gentle and human. Ice Cube may not be the most accomplished actor to come from rap, but he’s easily the most likable. As I noted in my review of his last starring vehicle, About the Benjamins, Cube is smart enough to be satisfied with being a personality — and secure enough that he has a sense of humor about himself. That serves him well and makes him the perfect center of gravity in this deliberately scatter-shot little movie. Where The Wash was a lame and shameless rip-off of Michael Schultz’ 1976 ensemble comedy, Car Wash, Barbershop is a winning 21st century reworking of that type of film. One scene — when the shop’s sole white barber (Troy Garity) tells pretentious college-educated barber Jimmy James (Sean Patrick Thomas), “I’m more black than you are,” — sounds like a variation on Antonio Fargas’ classic comeback about his homosexuality: “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever have.” (Car Wash). However, this and other aspects of Barbershop come across as a loving extension of the older movie’s approach rather than a rip-off. Also like Car Wash, Barbershop makes its character study work by framing it within the confines of a wafer-thin, but utterly workable plot. Barbershop shrewdly ties everything in the film — however much a digression from the main plot it seems — into a cleverly tidy package which is enough to make you smile on its own. The storyline concerns Calvin (Ice Cube) who has inherited the family barbershop on Chicago’s south side. Calvin wants more out of life than the barbershop seems to offer and he unwisely sells out to flashy, small-time gangster Lester Wallace (Keith David). Soon, events teach him a lesson about the value of the business as something more than a business and he wants to back out of the deal. Wallace demands a double return on his money, making it seemingly impossible for Calvin to retain the shop. Meanwhile, the film follows a pair of bumbling thieves — Anthony Anderson and Leonard Hawze — who have made off with the ATM from a nearby Indian-owned convenience store and are vainly trying to break into their awkward haul. It sounds like the antics of a larcenous Laurel and Hardy trying to haul a piano up a flight of steps, but Mark Brown’s deftly constructed screenplay ties this extended routine to the central story in a wonderful series of twists worthy of that master of plot convolutions, Preston Sturges. Much of the thrust of the film lies in Calvin accepting himself. Early on, when he explodes over someone telling him what his father would do, he asks “Do I look like my father?” Everyone thinks about this for a moment and then decides he does. It’s more than a physical resemblance, since his father spent his life helping people. The voice of reason in all this comes from Cedric the Entertainer as Eddie, an old-school barber, given to outrageous pronouncements (just wait for his “I probably wouldn’t say this in front of white people” take on Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, and Rosa Parks), napping, and offering an older perspective. It’s a wonderful role and Cedric gets every bit of good out of it. Newcomer director Tim Story does a splendid job of keeping things moving. His choice of hand-held camera in many scenes in the shop captures the sense that the viewer just happens to be there, taking in the friendly complexity of conversation. Barbershop isn’t a big event of a movie, but it’s a much pleasanter experience than many more ambitious efforts.
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