Billy Wilder said that what Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe had was "that strange trick of flesh impact - that is to say, their flesh registered for the camera and came across on the screen as real flesh that you could touch."
In Barbershop 2: Back in Business, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan finds that same "flesh impact" in the new gal on the block, Queen Latifah, and the returning cast (female and male) of the 2002 hit about a South Side, Chicago barbershop. He guides them with such intimate assurance that they envelop audiences in the warmth of a small, tight-knit and joyous body politic.
Sean Patrick Thomas as Jimmy, the whiz-kid barber turned political aide, Leonard Earl Howze as the lovelorn Nigerian immigrant Dinka, Troy Garity as white barber Isaac , and Eve as the temperamental Terri, all hold their positions and get their laughs. So does Saturday Night Live's Kenan Thompson as Kenard, the maladroit cousin of the shop owner's wife.
They rouse a gale-force audience response not just with their uninhibited language, but also with their spontaneous body language, which can turn from casual and relaxed to angular and ornery at the hint of an insult or controversy.
Robert Frost wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in." Sullivan's movie fills out the gnarly humanity of those lines. Barbershop 2: Back in Business shows that Calvin (Ice Cube) and his barbershop have always provided a haven to people who've needed it, from notoriously garrulous Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) to heartthrob ex-con Ricky (Michael Ealy, in another sneaky-funny performance). The movie is about expanding the notion of home to include spiritual siblings and surrogate parents.
The plot dramatizes a land developer's strategy to buy up the real estate surrounding Calvin's shop, close down long-standing family businesses in favor of franchises, and come after Calvin's shop itself with the opening of a posh hair-cuttery called Nappy Cutz. There are big payoffs for small businessmen who sell out. And gentrification may bring welcome new blood as well as cash. But it will also speed the deterioration of the community's character with the shutdown of local merchants and the dispersal of longtime residents who can't afford a rise in property values.
Barbershop 2 doesn't stint on the hard-edged topical riffs and ribald racial and sexual colloquia that made the first film so uproarious. And in this film the giddy hot air expands to the beauty shop next door, where Queen Latifah's character, Gina, plays both monarch and court jester while discussing jolly lightning-rod topics such as which white men sexually appeal to her and her black customers and colleagues.
As before, Cedric's Eddie gleefully shreds the edge of the envelope, especially when he compares the D.C. snipers to Jackie Robinson for opening up a previously white field of endeavor. Sullivan, cinematographer Tom Priestley and editor Paul Seydor set up the comic specialty numbers as the kind of real-life vaudeville that erupts in close, comfortable hangouts. You have to be tone-deaf and sober-sided not to chuckle.
These moviemakers know where the laughs are - not only in Calvin's and Gina's shops and in that new Nappy Cutz, but in a day-care center where Calvin says a cursory grace ("Jesus wept") for the woman he describes as his second mother, and on a subway where Eddie forces a conversation with a white yuppie about chai and ends up expounding about "lactose intoleration."
And the moviemakers stay tuned to the hum of humanity that makes a deeper comedy possible. They've realized that with a communal setting like a barbershop and an ensemble-comedy form, they can tackle real social and emotional issues with grassroots gusto and humor. Their instinct extends to every aspect of their film craft, including the black-and-white flashbacks that testify to the vividness of memory, not its fading, and the occasional trick shots that leap over cityscapes and demonstrate how small and fragile a 'hood can be.
Ice Cube, always a first-rate movie actor, compounds his talent in Barbershop 2 with an Everyman star's emotional heft and confidence. He plays a reliable husband and father and a social anchor without losing his spark: He's solid, not stolid. He's happy to show the foolishness as well as the courage of a self-reliant leader. (In one virtuoso sequence, he decrees that his barbers cut the chatter - and the moviemakers turn the whir and slap of their tools into a soft-shoe number from Stomp.)
Without losing his wheezing-foghorn exuberance, Cedric's Eddie gains new emotional credibility with a brave and love-torn history - we see how he earned the right to be outrageous. And Queen Latifah proves a sublime addition as Gina. She has a mouth as quick and ferocious as Eddie's and a sensual connection with Ice Cube's Calvin that Calvin wryly and silently confirms, knowing he will never take it anywhere.
The showdown between Calvin's shop and Nappy Cutz, and between land development and the community, cleverly mingles uplift and ambiguity. Barbershop 2 makes you want to know what happens next. In its own way, it's the Ivory Soap of sequels: 99 and 44/100% pure.
Barbershop 2: Back in Business
Starring Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, Sean Patrick Thomas and Queen Latifah
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Released by MGM
Time 106 minutes