Ice Cube’s “Barbershop” is structurally a pretty ramshackle affair, but it’s good-natured and well-meaning, and boasts a fair share of laughs and charm. The picture isn’t so much a narrative as the cinematic equivalent of a TV variety show–a semi-organized vehicle that assembles a group of talented performers in a single locale and then gives each of them an opportunity periodically to step out of the chorus and do a bit of solo shtick. The success of this sort of rambling enterprise depends on the quality of the talent and the material they’re given, and in this case the talent is top-notch and the script, if pretty formulaic and predictable, at least gives most a chance to strut their stuff in style.
A skeletal plot is needed even here, of course, and Mark Brown, Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd provide it. Calvin Palmer (Cube) owns a barbershop on Chicago’s south side that was passed down to him by his beloved late father, and cutting hair alongside him are a wide assortment of trimmers: Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), his father’s old buddy and a curmudgeon who hasn’t any customers but is always there; Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), the well-educated, snobbish fellow who looks down on his colleagues and plans a better future for himself; Terri (Eve), the angry woman barber who’s mistreated by her macho boyfriend Kevin (Jason George) but looked upon affectionately by her fellow cutter, chubby Nigerian immigrant Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze); Ricky (Michael Ealy), the always-in-trouble kid Calvin has taken in to give him a hopeful future; and Isaac (Troy Garity), the Jewish guy who’s embraced the black attitude but whom African-American customers shun. Calvin sees the shop as a burden; he’s in debt, mostly as a result (as supportive wife Jennifer, played by Jasmine Lewis, tells us) of his earlier Ralph Kramden-like get-rich schemes, and is at point of losing the place to the bank. He therefore reluctantly decides to sell the location to Lester (Keith Davis, smoothly menacing), the local loan-shark, with the promise that it will be maintained as a hair-cutting emporium. No sooner is the deal finalized, however, that Lester reneges on his pledge; and simultaneously Calvin comes to realize that his father’s place is more than just a business: it’s an integral part of the neighborhood, something that holds the community together–a northern, urban equivalent of Floyd’s shop in Mayberry. And so he seeks to reverse the sale. As all this is going on, there’s a intercut subplot involving JD (Anthony Anderson) and Billy (Lahmard Tate), a couple of blundering thieves who’ve taken an ATM machine from a nearby convenience store and go through a series of misadventures in an attempt to pry it open; suspicion for the heist falls on Ricky.
All of this merely provides a stage for the various performers to shine. Ice Cube proves a genial, generous host, mostly standing aside to allow the others to take center stage, though in the relatively rare moments he’s showcased, he seems more at ease than usual. Certainly he’s overshadowed (as is everybody else) by Cedric, who launches into his tirades, all calculated to inflame the denizens of the shop with supremely anti-PC rhetoric, with a great stand-up’s brio and skill. When he’s on, everybody else becomes just part of the audience. None of the other barbers matches him, though Howze is likable and Ealy nicely low-key. (Thomas, on the other hand, is stuck in a thanklessly snooty role, and Eve tends to be overly shrill.) Apart from the goings-on in the shop, Anderson and Tate keep up an amusing slapstick routine for most of the running-time as the inept robbers; what they’re engaged in is just an elongated riff on Laurel and Hardy’s old “Music Box” bit, and while they can’t equal the masters’ hilarity they get some good laughs. Unfortunately toward the end of the flick they’re transformed, for plot purposes, from comic bumblers into thuggish threats, and the change in tone is clumsy.
The maudlin moments in “Barbershop” don’t work terribly well, either. The point at which Ricky finally deflates Jimmy’s pomposity by catching him in a factual error and the obligatory climax when Jimmy and Isaac finally overcome their animosities to achieve some mutual respect are all too heavy-handed. So too is the conversation with an optimistic Indian immigrant that makes Calvin realize how important his shop is to the neighborhood.
One can forgive the mawkishness of these episodes and the miscalculations elsewhere, though, in light of the picture’s general good humor and warmheartedness. “Barbershop” also makes good use of the Chicago locations, convincingly capturing the feel of the city’s cold winter climate; first-time director Tim Story and cinematographer Tom Priestley, as well as production designer Roger Fortune, deserve praise. Even the background score is mostly kept within limits; there are a couple of points when the inevitable rap overwhelms the dialogue, but they’re relative rarities.
“Barbershop” may be more vaudeville show than well-constructed narrative, but on those terms it’s inoffensive and actually rather sweet.