The effortless charisma of Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer, the headliners of the first two Barbershop movies (released in 2002 and 2004), helped keep those over-plotted comedies buoyant. Cube and Cedric are back as Calvin and Eddie in Barbershop: The Next Cut, but even their enormous appeal can’t rescue the third installment in the franchise. Nor can director Malcolm D. Lee, who has overseen an impressive number of breezy productions: The Best Man (1999) and its 2013 sequel, Undercover Brother (2002), Roll Bounce (2005). Scripted by black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, The Next Cut is glutted even more than its predecessors with ancient fellas-versus-females debates, ungainly sociopolitical commentary and Top 40 superstars trying to diversify their brands.
“Lately, we’ve been having trouble,” Calvin, the owner of the South Side shop that bears his name, says in voice-over in the opening montage — a sunny, Earth, Wind & Fire–scored paean to Chicago glories such as deep-dish pizza and Oprah, which soon turns into a disaster reel of the gun violence that has plagued the city. Calvin is determined to stay in the battle-weary neighborhood, though; to keep solvent, he has expanded his one-time all-male sanctum to include a ladies’ salon overseen by green-ringleted Angie (Regina Hall). Yet the coed space only intensifies the Mars/Venus divide: “The only man you can trust is the man upstairs,” fumes stylist Bree (Margot Bingham), one of several lines suggesting a T.D. Jakes homily.
The intragender feuds are just as fractious. Bree often clashes with coworker Draya (Nicki Minaj), a weave specialist who also must contend with some serious side-eye from Terri (Eve, whose acting career was launched with the first Barbershop but may end with the third). The reigning hip-hop queen appears contractually obliged to say "fleek," if only to provoke old-timer Eddie’s grumpy lecture on neologisms. The smack talk is much sharper and funnier between the gray panther and One-Stop (J.B. Smoove), whose innumerable side hustles — VD testing, dental work, counseling, real estate — prove the freshest gags.
But the film too often relies on rote sermonizing when tackling the city’s scourge of shootings, a grave topic that The Next Cut is simply too feeble to examine with any real depth or meaning. (Though wildly uneven, last year’s Chi-Raq, directed by Lee’s cousin Spike, at least pulses with unalloyed fury and pain about the metropolis’ rising death toll.). After trying to keep his fourteen-year-old son on the straight and narrow, Calvin concludes, “We gotta fix our problems ourselves.” The declaration typifies the boot-strapping conservatism that dominates all of the Barbershop movies, but, offered as a solution to an intractable problem, sounds especially glib.