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dir: Tim Story
[img_assist|nid=1059|title=Barbershops are so old-school. Just like bordellos|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=419|height=419]
With the recent release of its sequel I thought it was about time I caught up with a film I’d heard was pretty funny back in the dim distant reaches of the heady days of 2002. See, there aren’t many funny films out there, at least films I find funny. Sure there are stacks of comedies pumped out by the studios, but even the thought of most of them makes me want to tear my eyeballs out of their sockets using salad forks.

I was a fool to think Barbershop would be an outright comedy. It’s a treacly tv movie with something to say about tradition and community. I know this because every time any character started talking about the good ol’ days of Calvin’s barber shop and the importance of community, this drippy, cloying piano music would start up in the background. It’s very handy if you didn’t know how to feel about the scene. It’s a very convenient shortcut for those of us that couldn’t work out what our reaction was supposed to be. Thanks to the quality direction, we no longer have that worry.

The story, such as it is, covers a day in the life of some people orbiting around the central focal point that is Calvin’s Barbershop, on the south side of Chicago. Calvin, played by legendary rapper Ice Cube resents the shop that his daddy left to him and sees it as a burden. He continually searches for get rich quick schemes in order to be able to kiss the shop goodbye. Over the course of the day he will be taught to appreciate how great the shop is and the general wonderfulness of community. He will realise this at various points as he stares into the middle distance (with the drippy piano music playing in the background) whilst wiser people than he tell him how great the shop is and the general wonderfulness of community. Like we had any doubts.

It’s a terribly lazy script with its heart in the right place. I guess. The story is padded out with a subplot regarding two morons who have stolen an ATM and are endeavouring to extract the bounty therein. It’s entirely unnecessary and makes a gifted comedian like Anthony Anderson look like a fool, and its only purpose is as a deus ex machina at movie’s end.

The movie’s value comes from the interactions between the various barbers and their customers in the shop. The jeopardy angle of Calvin potentially losing the shop is there solely to give the story somewhere to go, but it hardly matters. The humour and humanity of the characters comes through in their interactions, which aren’t propelled by the plot.

The barbers and people in the shop are diverse in a calculated manner. There’s the old guy Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) with his Pepe Le Peu ‘fro, his disdain for using consonants and his ‘controversial’ views on accepted ‘truths’ regarding African American culture. There’s the female barber Terri (played by singer Eve), who’s all sassy and shouty. There’s the college-educated brother Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) who styles himself an intellectual and is derided by the others for being too ‘white’. There’s the ‘white’ guy Isaac (Troy Garity) who no-one takes seriously and is derided by the others for trying to be ‘black’. There’s the recent African immigrant Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze) who’s more of a poet than a barber, and is hopelessly smitten with Terri, and last but certainly not least there’s Ricky (Michael Ealy) who’s a guy with two strikes against him trying to stay on the straight and narrow.

The strangest issue with this film is the prominence given to several of the statements made by Cedric the Entertainer’s character Eddie as if he’s radically upturned decades of thought regarding prominent African American personages. To paraphrase from his character’s insights, in the same manner that he mentions the fact that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first African American to refuse to give up her seat to a ‘white’ person on the bus, Eddie isn’t the first person to have alternative ways of looking at the various people involved. It may be controversial in that it stirred up interest in the film, and its condemnation by Parks and Jesse Jackson surely didn’t hurt its initial box office, but he hardly says anything of a genuinely radical nature. Still, it’s played more for humour than pushing any type of agenda, and it works. The horrified outcry from various people in the shop at his statements is perfect, and represents that this is his manner, his way of relating, and the others express mock outrage as part of the daily routine they all have going.

All the same, the points raised are interesting, but are curiously devoid of context outside of positing the kinds of arguments groups of people have at these types of ‘community’ places. Also, in a conversation later on when various characters are discussing the idea of reparations being paid to African Americans as compensation for their oppression through the slavery of yesteryear, various statements being made seem strangely placed without a context. It all seems to work within the context of the film, but then you wonder how and why someone felt the need to project statements out through the camera in such an undisguised manner. The character of Ricky, the reformed criminal launches into a tirade stating what exactly is wrong with African Americans themselves, including the fact that they need to be more punctual (!) The actor delivers it note perfectly, there’s no issue with that, but do African American audiences really want to be openly lectured to in such an unsubtle manner? What the hell did it have to do in the context of the story? Perhaps he should have said something about teeth brushing and toenail cutting as well.

For myself as neither an American nor an African American, the morality lessons don’t seem to resonate as much, so I’m left having the occasional chuckle, which is why I wanted to see it in the first place. The actors all do a wonderful job, the plot is perfunctory, dramatic impetus is practically non-existent (unless you thought Calvin was actually going to get rid of the barbershop after all those treacly moments), there’s no real character development, but that’s not what we’re here for. A few laughs, a few scenes of people being undone by their own arrogance or being humiliated by their peers in classic schoolyard fashion, and that’s all you really expected.

What I find most interesting are the scenes dealing with the individual peccadilloes of the various characters in individual conflict with each other. Jimmy, the educated ‘brother’ is treated derisively by the other characters because of his pretensions to being an intellectual. At first it seems like the film has an anti-intellectual streak a mile wide. However it appears that the scorn aimed at him seems more justifiable as a result of the manner in which he tries to parade his knowledge and talk down to others stemming from his inflated sense of self. Routinely he insults other people he considers inferior to himself because college has somehow given him a release the others don’t possess. He is even more so taken to task for not ‘acting’ like a ‘brother’, and for not being ‘black’ enough. It’s very interesting seeing how all this arises through his conflict with token ‘white’ guy Isaac.

Isaac speaks, dresses and ‘acts’, for the purposes of the film, like an African American male. He has a big-ass car and a black girlfriend, yet despite wanting to work as a barber in Calvin’s shop, the other barbers treat him with contempt and customers refuse to be served by him. He ‘wins’ the respect of the other characters by pointing out how ‘black’ he is and how ‘white’ (and thus ashamed of himself) Jimmy is, and how Jimmy secretly wishes he was as ‘black’ as Isaac.

I think I would need to master the complexity of quantum mathematics formula notation before I could dare try to graphically describe the complexity of what they’re trying to say right there. If you try to approach it from a film analysis point of view, you’re only going to hurt yourself. Best to let it slide.

That I enjoyed it says more about my good mood at the time more than any good feelings the film in itself provoked. In a more critical mood I probably would have ripped the shit through it for being a glib, immature, simplistic, insubstantial comedy with all the complexity and social relevance of an episode of the Cosby show. However I wasn’t in that mood, and when it was dull or pointless I just waited patiently for it to improve, and it generally did. Thanks mostly to how comfortable most of the cast except for Ice Cube seemed to be. Which is what I find most perplexing: the aspects of the story dealing with Calvin aren’t anywhere near as amusing or interesting as the interactions between the other characters. Which is strange.

He’s probably the lynch pin holding it all together and trying to give the film its emotional centre, but the mawkish nature of the moments where he’s being told about the importance of community (with the perpetual piano in the background) made me dislike the character somewhat, but not enough to dislike the film. Cedric the Entertainer garnered the lion’s share of the plaudits, but for my money the best characters were Eve and Ricky by a long shot. It’s an ensemble movie, and with an ensemble this enjoyable the flaws of some are cancelled out by the virtues of others, which is the real value of community in my book.

6 times there's no way I understood whatever the hell was coming out of Cedric the Entertainer's mouth out of 10

"There are three things that Black people need to tell the truth about. Number one: Rodney King should've gotten his ass beat for being drunk in a Honda in a white part of Los Angeles. Number two: O.J. did it! And number three: Rosa Parks didn't do nuthin' but sit her Black ass down!" - Barbershop