For those with any kind of pop cultural memory, it's more than a little surprising to see Ice Cube in a movie like Barbershop, and not because it's a light comedy -- Friday was, too, and that was certainly in character. What's odd about Barbershop is its seeming embrace of positions that the former N.W.A. rapper might once have derided as those of a sellout. The man who advocated burning down immigrant-run grocery stores in the song "Black Korea" is now seen comforting an Indian grocer whose convenience store was demolished by dumb thugs. The man who once said all white men are devils now stars in a film that, possibly for the first time, portrays a white man who acts and dresses in hip hop style as a sympathetic character, one who's being true to himself rather than acting black to be cool. Issues such as slavery reparations get a serious, non-politically correct airing, and Cedric the Entertainer, essentially playing Buckwheat's grandpa -- complete with a Frederick Douglass Afro and a speech impediment -- is likely to get the biggest rise out of the audience when he loudly exclaims, "Man, fuck Jesse Jackson!"
Finally playing a grown-up -- Cube's 33 and a family man, yet he's made an acting career of portraying people who either live at home or are college age -- Amerikkka's former most-wanted stars as Calvin, a father-to-be with more harebrained get-rich-quick schemes than Homer Simpson. What he doesn't seem to realize is that he has a perfectly good and honest profession as proprietor of the neighborhood barbershop, inherited from his father along with a bushel of debt that might be paid off if Calvin's spare cash didn't go toward reckless investments. So when the bank threatens to repossess the store, Calvin happily signs over the place to a local loan shark (Keith David) for 20 grand, only to realize immediately that he just lost the best thing he ever had when it turns out that the menacing dandy plans to turn the shop into a barber-themed strip club.
Meanwhile, there's a parallel plot line in which two inept thugs (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) steal an ATM from the aforementioned immigrant grocery store and spend most of the movie trying unsuccessfully to crack it open (we know something they don't -- it's a brand-new machine that contains no money). Anderson steals the show as always, proving himself a physical comedian as well as a talented improviser, with a silly walk that would make John Cleese proud. Though Anderson seems contractually obliged to be the comic relief in every black ensemble film, someone needs to nullify that clause and get this man his own movie.
It's always a pleasure to see Anderson on screen, and it's certainly laudable that the movie deals with hot-button issues in a comedic context, but Barbershop isn't as funny as it should be. Cedric's speech impediment only goes so far -- he's actually funnier in Serving Sara, without having to rely on a big wig to do his acting for him. Similarly, a jokey African character named Dinka (newcomer Leonard Earl Howze) falls flatter than he should, with an over-the-top reggae accent that grates. While it's notable that he's a sensitive nebbish, undermining so many noble-savage stereotypes, Dinka seldom comes off as more than a David Alan Grier wannabe with a fake voice.
Other cast members fare better. As the object of Howze's affections, rapper Eve dresses down her MTV look and still manages to be smokin' hot and hard-edged; the normally foulmouthed Cube even has to admonish her to "Stop cussin'; this ain't Def Comedy Jam!" Sean Patrick Thomas (Save the Last Dance) gracefully straddles the fine line between obnoxious and endearing as the intellectual Larry Elder-in-training, though a scene in which he pretentiously orders an elaborate coffee drink from Starbucks is a hoary joke that's been done to death since it first appeared in L.A. Story. As the apparent would-be black rapper, Troy Garity (son of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda) brings humanity to his caricature that may ensure him the Michael Rappaport role in every Spike Lee film from here on out. It's a running gag that the customers prefer any black barber, no matter how incompetent, to this white Jew, so when he finally gets to speak his mind near the movie's end, he may as well be addressing the audience's preconceptions as well as those of the other characters, who naturally relent.
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