2 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
A tragic dilemma confronts director Malcolm D. Lee’s “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” the fourth in the “Barbershop” film series if you count the spin-off, “Beauty Shop” (2005). While it is a heartfelt and generally successful attempt to lay bare and ponder solutions to the rampant murder rate in urban America (in this specific case, Chicago), the filmmaker also attempts to deliver the rollicking trademark humor that viewers have come to expect from the franchise. The unfortunate result is two disparate natures that never quite meld.
Like a cartoon train that jumps back and forth from one set of tracks to another, one marked serious, the other funny, the script rarely ventures beyond its albeit well-intentioned didacticism. It so urgently wants to make its points, to take full advantage of the pulpit the popularity of the series might afford, that the rudimentary message forsakes practically all artistic risk. It would take a far more creative bit of writing to achieve that reverse Pagliacci essence, wherein the author seamlessly evokes the humor in his tragedy.
Here, the familiar group of regulars at Calvin’s Barbershop, recently joined out of economic necessity by the gals from Angie’s (Regina Hall) beauty salon next door, is now relegated to supplying the comedy relief, their hijinks secondary to the social issue. Still, with Ice Cube’s Calvin as the unofficial referee of their chiding, bantering and mostly good-natured one-upmanship, they are able, in some degree, to recapture the convivial sense of community the barbershop is meant to represent.
Of course the merger adds a new wrinkle to the plot possibilities, reminding why some school systems used to advocate a separation of the sexes. Expect a few flirtations, some jealousies, one big soap opera misconception and a running debate on the truths, fallacies and utter confusion wrought by la difference.
Principal debaters new and old who register their opinions in a Greek chorus chanted from behind their chairs are, in addition to Ice Cube: Rashad, played by Common; Utkarsh Ambudkar as Raja, offering his non-black point of view; Nicki Minaj as Draya, the resident femme fatale; Cedric the Entertainer as good old Eddie, who can be counted on for his oft politically incorrect pearls of wisdom; Rashad’s wife Terri, portrayed by Eve; Jazsmin Lewis as Jennifer, the feminist voice; and J.B Smoove as wily One-Stop.
The storyline is basic. The Southside is getting worse and worse, the sociocultural casualty of increasing gang violence. Politicians have suggested surrounding it with a wall. Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar? Secretly, Calvin harbors thoughts of giving up the fight and relocating to the North Side. However, respect for the neighborhood institution his dad founded, as well as a dedication to his loyal band of cohorts, stirs him to make one last stab at winning back the civility of yesteryear.
The thought is, if he can get the ghetto’s two rival mucky-mucks to honor a 48-hour ceasefire, it’ll attract the sort of public attention needed for some positive intervention. But tensions rise. A real nice kid with a bright future who helps out in the shop meets tragedy. The haircutters question the possibility of a renaissance. And, just to add subplot to injury, Calvin and his son, Jalen (Michael Rainey, Jr.), who’s being courted by a local gang, have been drifting apart.
It’s arguably our biggest domestic problem, shoved in our face in no uncertain terms. Inner-city people are getting killed in production line fashion. Black-on-black crime rises unabated while elected officials too busy forging the gridlock of self-interest do their version of Nero fiddling. In angry response, this celluloid metaphor beseeches awareness. Calvin and company represent those unheralded urban champions who see the challenge as but one more step in the long process begun by the Thirteenth Amendment.
We know all this, and yet, when dramatically iterated, are aghast anew. Knowing full well that any lightheartedness will inevitably be followed by another splash of sad reality, laughing seems a bit untoward. Plus, whether it’s the context in which it’s supplied and/or a subliminal disinclination by the formidable assemblage of comics, the interspersed humor feels perfunctory and forced.
Yet, there are moments. Although the ribald and candid observations we’ve come to expect from Cedric lack his signature crustiness, J.B. Smoove as newcomer One-Stop, a cunning slickster who offers everything from real estate service to monitoring your blood pressure, picks up some of the slack. Others, while randomly philosophizing on the serious subjects at hand, offer pithy but seldom profound wit.
Granted, while Ice Cube and his fellow producers don’t lose sight of where their bread is buttered, they are to be commended for integrating the sincere muckrake into their multimillion dollar effort. Problem is, in awkwardly doing so, neither the mask of tragedy nor that of comedy receives a fashionable shaping in “Barbershop: The Next Cut.”
“Barbershop: The Next Cut,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Malcolm D. Lee and stars Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer and Nicki Minaj. Running time: 112 minutes