Barbershop has all the earmarks of one of those crass urban comedies that too often pass for entertainment, films where anything goes when it comes to getting a laugh (the fouler the language and the more body parts involved, the better), where screaming is disguised as acting and attitude is everything.
Thankfully, the film is so much more. At its core a big-hearted riff on friendship, family and the faith that things can always get better, it spotlights a gifted ensemble cast where it's folly to debate who outshines whom and a celebratory spirit that refuses to stoop to least-common-denominator humor.
True, the movie starts off shakily, with characters more interested in dissing each other than interacting in any meaningful way. But about a half-hour into things, director Tim Story stages a delightful scene where all the characters start dancing to music coming from the radio, a shared experience that seems a signal to the cast (and perhaps the filmmakers as well) that it's time to treat this community as a community and not a bunch of people who just happen to occupy the same frames of film.
And then, just when you've settled in for an amiable little comedy, Story and screenwriters Mark Brown, Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd inject some welcome substance into the proceedings.
Ice Cube, who becomes a more substantive actor with each movie, is Calvin, owner of an inner-city Chicago barbershop he inherited from his father a few years back. He's a dreamer who thinks nothing about spending all his money on some get-rich-quick scheme (much to his pregnant wife's consternation), but he's also a family man whose sense of loyalty won't let him simply unload the barbershop. Instead, he runs it much as his father did, giving apprentice barbers the chance to ply their trade, giving credit to customers who may never have the money to pay, keeping the place open as a sort of community focal point.
What a community has assembled here. Among the haircutters, there's Ricky (Michael Ealy), a two-time loser determined to change his life; Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), who wears his college education a little too proudly on his sleeve; Terri (Eve), whose incessant bluster is all facade; Isaac (Troy Garity, the son of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden), as the white guy who wants to be black; and Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), a Nigerian immigrant who doesn't understand what all the constant fussing is about. And sitting in a chair like a deposed monarch still much-loved by his people is Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), a compatriot of Calvin's father who spends his day declaiming on whatever politically incorrect subject strikes his fancy.
But money is becoming especially tight, and familial loyalty may be a luxury Calvin no longer can afford. Reluctantly, he approaches an unctuous loan shark named Lester (Keith David) who's willing to pay $20,000 for the place and turn it into a sex club.
Calvin sells, but by the time he returns to the barbershop, his attack of conscience has begun. He can't bring himself to tell everyone what he's done.
A subplot, involving two thieves trying to open the bank machine they've stolen, provides comic relief but really doesn't add much to the story. And cinematographer Tom Priestley Jr. should have shed a little more light on things; the picture is often so darkly lit that it's hard to distinguish just where the onscreen voices are coming from.
Cube gives the film an accessible moral and emotional center. His feelings toward the shop and its inhabitants mirror our own, as he gradually admits to himself that this is a group that deserves not only his love, but his protection. And while all the cast members wear their parts comfortably, Cedric the Entertainer pretty much steals every scene he's in as Eddie, a mixture of wisdom and cornpone who can go from belittling Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King one minute to reminding Calvin what it means to be a man the next.
It's Eddie's character, in fact, that gives Barbershop its surprising cultural heft, as his declamations on how kids today don't appreciate what their parents had to go through strikes a responsive chord with his fellow haircutters. Especially affected is Ricky, who speaks passionately about young black men needing to do for themselves, and not depend on handouts from others. Not everyone is going to appreciate the politics of Barbershop, but you've got to admire it for having a political view at all.
Starring Ice Cube, Anthony Anderson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Cedric the Entertainer
Directed by Tim Story
Released by MGM
Rated PG-13 (language, sexual content and brief drug references)
Time 102 minutes
SUN SCORE * * *