Hair ’n the hood
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds you how entertaining, enjoyable and satisfying a really terrible movie can be.
Rocky was like that—coarse and uncouth, but in a way that just happened to suit the ham-and-egg palooka at the center of the story (Sylvester Stallone was never again so endearing). And Saturday Night Fever, an awkward ode to the autoerotic pleasures of disco dancing, was redeemed by sheer dumb luck because of the Bee Gees’ music and John Travolta’s breakthrough performance.
Barbershop is a movie like those, not that it’s likely to become any kind of classic. It isn’t as enjoyable or satisfying as Rocky or Saturday Night Fever, and it’s even more terrible. But, like them, it’s entertaining in spite of itself.
Ice Cube plays Calvin Palmer, owner of a barbershop amid the urban blight of Chicago’s South Side. Every morning, Calvin rolls back the iron gate and opens the shop he inherited from his father, letting in the array of employees, customers, hangers-on and passersby who parade through the script written by Mark Brown, Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd. There’s Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), a holdover from the days of Calvin’s father. It seems as though Eddie hasn’t cut any hair in years; he just lounges in his barber chair, spouting prickly opinions and unsolicited advice to everyone who comes within the sound of his bellowing voice. There’s also Terri (Eve), who takes no crap from anybody, except her worthless, two-timing boyfriend; Dinka (Leonard Howze), the sweetly dorky Nigerian immigrant with a crush on Terri; Isaac (Troy Garity), the white barber who talks and acts black; and Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), the snooty college kid contemptuous of Isaac as an intruder and a wanna-be homie.
Calvin regards this hearty stew of African-American life, and the shop itself, as more of a nuisance than anything else. He resents being saddled with this white elephant after his father ran it into the ground by giving away too many free haircuts. Calvin’s dream is to start a recording studio in his basement, where, in the solitude of dials and tape decks, he can take refuge from the chaotic social uproar of the shop. Before he can do that, though, he has to get out from under the payments on the barbershop. In exasperation, he sells the shop to the neighborhood loan shark (Keith David). When he learns that the shark intends to turn the place into a strip joint, Calvin finally realizes what his community will lose, and he tries to buy the shop back. Of course, now the shark wants twice the $20,000 he paid for it.
Running through all this is a subplot about two small-time thugs (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) and their supposedly hilarious adventures trying to crack into a stolen ATM. These scenes are awful; director Tim Story hasn’t the craft either to make them amusing on their own or to integrate them into the main thread of the story. When they finally pay off in the end, we don’t feel the satisfaction we should. We’re simply accepting Story’s apology for trying our patience.
Barbershop reportedly is being developed into a TV series, and the truth is that the movie feels exactly like a sitcom pilot. Much of the script is pat and facile, but, paradoxically, Story’s very clumsiness works in its favor—he simply has too few skills to make the film glib or slick.
The movie’s main assets—and the reasons it’s as enjoyable as it is—are Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer. Ice Cube gives Calvin a core of harried integrity that makes us root for him, hoping he’ll see the value of what he’s about to throw away. And Cedric the Entertainer (the only good thing in the dismal Serving Sara) again shows his indestructible screen presence. Here, playing a character twice his real age, his hair gooped up with white shoe polish like an actor in a high-school play, he gives a performance of raucous and real depth. The climactic scene between Eddie and Calvin is the emotional heart of the film, and Story has the wit to stay out of Cedric and Ice Cube’s way. That scene and their performances are what make Barbershop worth seeing.