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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Whoops, franchise! Way back in 2002, who would have believed that a comedy starring rapper Ice Cube (née O'Shea Jackson) would be a hit, let alone spawn a sequel? Just having a giggle, obviously, but so are the producers of Barbershop 2: Back in Business, which handily snaps up its predecessor's charming characters and homey setting, dispenses with some of the more cartoonish antics, and emerges victorious as a sequel that's smarter and more fun than the original. Well, that's if you consider Barbershop wholly original, but we'll get to that.
We return to Chicago's South Side, to the rowdy social locus that is Calvin's Barber Shop, except this time Calvin (Cube) faces a new challenge. Rather than losing and regaining faith in the beloved business his father left him, this time, there are bigger fish to fry. The key word is gentrification, and it's swooping in fast via designer coffee and all that, but most threatening is an absurdly luxurious haircutting palace going in directly across the street, just another in the chain of "Nappy Cutz" outlets providing urban communities with surface sleekness while robbing them of soul.
We open, tellingly, on a stinking-drunk white Uncle Sam stumbling down the sidewalk on the Fourth of July, 1967. Rushing past comes Eddie (Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles), on the lam from the cops until he finds safe haven in Calvin Sr.'s barbershop, where he stays to the present day. It's a nice bit of backstory that swoops directly into the outrageously slick opening credits, which beautifully celebrate the images and lives of famous African-Americans (and the odd Jamaican) who have increased the peace or at least given good hair.
Anyway, the gang's all here, including roughneck Ricky (Michael Ealy) concealing a crafty new scheme and sorting out his feelings for gradually evolving riot grrrl Terri (Eve Jeffers). Culturally dedicated Nigerian Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze) is still finding his adorable way, while arrogant college boy Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) also returns to annoy everybody.
The crux of the plot is as sweetly old fashioned as an old Capra film, with Cube as the new millennium's earnest and well-intentioned Jimmy Stewart. Basically, the dirty gangster of the first movie is replaced here by a crooked politician, and the ante for Calvin's faith is upped from 20 G's to 200. Now raising a baby with his wife (Jazsmin Lewis) and well aware of the social significance of his shop, Calvin must navigate the tricky straits of business competition, urban redevelopment, and unruly employees en route to his big, public soliloquy about his wonderful neighborhood.
But that's almost beside the point, which is that everybody still gets to talk a bunch of smack. Offering a laid back setting and instantly recognizable "friends," the Barbershop franchise is like Cheers for people who aren't boring. This time, we get new characters in nervous barber neophyte Kenard (Kenan Thompson of SNL) and saucy beautician Gina (Queen Latifah, née Dana Elaine Owens, who's already been granted her own spinoff movie, Beauty Shop). The project offers nice doses of reality (an Al Sharpton joke) as well as fantasy (a top-of-the-line iBook in a barbershop, apparently with the fastest DSL hookup in all of the Windy City), and it's a very enjoyable place to visit.
Dollars to Dr. Peppers, though, you're coming out mainly to see Cedric as Eddie, and he doesn't disappoint. Still sounds like Mel Blanc with a bad head cold, still looks like the Bride of Frankenstein on soul food, and delights as ever with malapropisms ("He's one of our prima-donna barbers") and even heroism and romancethis time. He's a treat, even amid unforgivable praise for Kenny G.
Barbershop 2 may appear humble and cute, but it's a top-notch package all the way. Only one of the original screenwriters (Don D. Scott) is back, but with Norman Vance Jr. and director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back), the screenplay is -- to quote the group Fishbone -- "as tight as a mosquito's ass." Editor Paul Seydor deserves special commendation for harmonizing the zippy dialogue (which could easily have become a train wreck), and the additional music by Wu-Tang Clan featuring the RZA adds a hip boost. Still makes no sense that guys with no discernible hair desperately need haircuts, but on it goes.
To close with a little cynicism, one can almost hear the echoes of movie executives cloistered around this "new" hot property: "It's kind of like Spike Lee's NYU thesis film, Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, but nicer and funnier! Let's omit most of the unruly politics and violence, dumb it down some, distract everyone with funny dialogue, and play nice all the way to the bank." To some degree, you're still getting robbed, Spike. Still, as your own Barbershop's Nicholas Lovejoy states, "It is very difficult for black people to enter the mainstream of the American economy." At least here, the robbery seems generally beneficial.
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