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They don't make movies like Barbershop much anymore, and that's a shame. It has a laid-back style of storytelling that trusts its audience's patience and its actors' abilities. It focuses on a place and the people that inhabit that place, rather than a particular relationship or conflict. Because of that, it doesn't have to wrap up every narrative thread but can instead follow the characters through the course of their day, in this case a cold, winter Saturday on Chicago's south side.

Calvin (Ice Cube) is a young African American who's inherited his father's barbershop. He has a pretty young wife who's pregnant, and he dreams of making more of himself than just being a barber. Unfortunately, his get-rich-quick schemes have all failed. Furthermore, the barbershop is saddled with so much debt that he's contemplating selling it to a local loan shark who wants to turn it into a "gentleman's club."

In many cases, we might sympathize with a man wanting to get out from under his father's shadow. But once we see the barbershop, we recognize its importance not only to the community but to Calvin and his fellow barbers. We meet them one-by-one early in the movie. There's Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), a guy who's a little too educated for his own good and has no problems belittling his fellow barbers; Ricky (newcomer Michael Ealy) a young ex-con trying to get his life back together; Terri (pop star Eve), the only female barber and one who doesn't take any guff from the others; Isaac (Troy Garity), the shop's only white barber; Dinka (newcomer Leonard Earl Howze), a Nigerian immigrant who bears the brunt of some good-natured ribbing; and Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), an old-school barber who likes to cut up and pontificate on the state of black society in America.

If this sounds like a stereotypical cast of characters, it certainly doesn't feel like it once the movie gets rolling. The relationships are natural and true. The barbers both like and bicker with each other. One minute they're laughing, the next they're arguing--both in a way that feel like real life. Director Tim Story also gets the feel of south-side Chicago. It helps that the film was shot here, but the little details--like the hustler who's constantly trying to sell things in the shop, the hair salon next door, and the way people walk and converse on the street--all ring true.

The movie has been marketed as a comedy, and it is genuinely funny. As my friend Garth put it, Cedric the Entertainer steals the show. Often talking as if he's got marbles in his mouth, his brash declarations about black culture and his on-target insults of his fellow barbers are hilarious. But much of Barbershop's humor comes from the situation instead of one-liners. It's the laughter of recognition, as we see ourselves portrayed on screen. We see Dinka wondering how to approach Terri, and we laugh because we know what that's like. We watch a dispute escalate over who drank someone's apple juice, and we chuckle because we've been there before. We hear Eddie's cracks about Rosa Parks and Jessie Jackson, and we roar because we've secretly thought the same things. It's a humor that builds community, as opposed to the insult-or humiliation-driven comedy we typically see. The movie is also surprisingly clean. Of course, there is some swearing (much of it quite funny), but Calvin is right when he declares, "This ain't no Def Comedy Jam."

I should mention there's also a separate subplot involving two men who steal an entire ATM machine and then try to get the money out of it. Anthony Anderson, who I always think is fantastic, is one of the robbers,
and the part gives him a chance to ad-lib and mug for the camera. He's great, as usual, but I wish he had been more integrated into the plot. I can imagine him as one of the shop's customers and the hilarity that would ensue.

To single out any actor would be a disservice to the fine ensemble work on display, but I have to mention Ice Cube's fine performance as a straight man. Instead of being the focal point of the film's humor, he carries the movie with an assurance we first saw in Boyz N the Hood. And as I mentioned before, Cedric the Entertainer is hilarious.

With any movie that might be successful, there's already talk of a sequel. That's something I would welcome. These are wonderful characters with interesting stories. Let's have more of that. 

J. Robert Parks 9/17/2002


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