For those with any kind of pop-culture memory, it's more than a little surprising to see Ice Cube in a movie like Barbershop. 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 NWA 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 that 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 -- someone who's actually being true to himself rather than trying to act 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 speech impediment, is likely to get the biggest rise out of the audience when he loudly exclaims, "Man, fuck Jesse Jackson!"
Finally playing a grownup -- 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-aged -- AmeriKKKa's former most wanted plays 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; it was 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 the place over to a neighborhood loan shark (Keith David) for twenty grand, only to immediately realize that he just lost the best thing he ever had when it turns out that the menacing dandy plans to turn the place into a barber-themed strip club.
Meanwhile, there's a parallel plotline in which two inept thugs (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) steal an ATM from the aforementioned immigrant grocery store, then spend most of the movie unsuccessfully trying 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 as a physical comedian as well as a talented improviser; he spends much of the flick with a silly walk that would make John Cleese proud. Though he seems contractually obliged to be the comic relief in every black ensemble movie ever made, someone needs to nullify that clause and get this man his own movie.
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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 unfortunately, 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 (newcomer Leonard Earl Howze) falls flatter than he should, with an over-the-top reggae accent that grates. While it's certainly notable that he's a sensitive nebbish, thereby perhaps undermining so many noble-savage stereotypes, he 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 from 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 where he pretentiously orders an elaborate coffee drink from Starbucks is a hoary joke that's been done to death since L.A. Story. And as the apparent would-be-black rapper, whitey Troy Garity (son of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda) brings a 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 throughout the movie 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.