- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

Never mind talk radio or those soulless Internet chat rooms. One of the few places left for real, raw conversation is the neighborhood barbershop. So posits a new film featuring a kinder, gentler Ice Cube and a ragtag troupe of barbers who wilt under the film's polemics.

First-time director Tim Story's "Barbershop" wrings some laughs out of a collection of urban personality types, from the uptight college boy to the tread-upon homegirl.

As refreshing as it is to have a film celebrate the lost art of conversation, though, this art is more paint-by-numbers than Picasso.

It doesn't help that none of the actors appears at ease with clipper in hand.

"Barbershop" wants to show its titular shop as a place where labels disappear under the common need for a nice, neat trim. Too many cliched moments, like the sight of a wronged woman destroying what she thinks is her cheating beau's car, deflate those intentions.

Calvin (Ice Cube), a third-generation barbershop owner in Chicago, is having trouble paying off his shop's loans. His salon serves as the community's gathering place, a verbal unloading zone for everything from rap to reparations.

Calvin has more on his mind than juicy debates. He is about to become a father, and a deal proffered by a slimy loan shark (Keith David, lending gravitas to a cartoon role) to sell the shop is looking too tempting to ignore.

Meanwhile, a lumbering subplot has a pair of hoodlums stealing an ATM from a neighboring store, only to find that they cannot open it.

It's a comic thread that starts out dental-floss-thin and only unravels from there.

For every chuckle "Barbershop" musters, we endure a life lesson flashed in neon letters. Writer Mark Brown, whose last film, "Two Can Play That Game," X-rayed the battle of the sexes with mixed results, is still maturing as a writer. His growing pains can be unsettling, particularly during the mawkish last reel of "Barbershop."

The film's sweetest moments are its quiet ones, such as when Isaac (Troy Garity), the barbershop's lone white employee, makes peace with college-educated Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) by cutting his hair with expert care.

The assembled barbers do their best to make "Barbershop" worthy of its own chatter.

Lording over the shop is Ice Cube, who casts aside his usual glowering for a different mode, that of both stern father figure and entrepreneur. His Calvin, a modern-day Ralph Kramden bursting with schemes, gives the film its much-needed anchor.

Michael Ealy is all quiet cool as Ricky, the ambivalent ex-con trying to put his thuggish ways behind him.

Superstar rapper Eve's early bid for movie stardom is a push. The rapper-cum-actress, last seen in "XXX," has an attractive face that can't stop collapsing into a sneer. Her romantic story line is the kind of "You go, girl" treacle Ricki Lake would dismiss.

Every barbershop needs a wizened soul to put hair and everything else into perspective.

Cedric the Entertainer, a thirtysomething comic turned elder statesman courtesy of gray-streaked hair, appears miscast at first as the shop's slurry-voiced sage. As the movie progresses, though, his ramblings take shape.

It helps that the rotund comic gets the best lines, including a politically incorrect rant that knocks his colleagues cold.

Rodney King deserved the whupping from the Los Angeles Police Department, O.J. is guilty, and "Rosa Parks didn't do nothing but sit down," he cries, to everyone's consternation.

Mr. Story, yet another graduate of the MTV school of filmmaking, keeps the action slippery and weightless. His camerawork takes some too-obvious detours, lingering on a woman's posterior one moment, then unnecessarily amping up the few snippets of action the next, as if fearing the audience might tire from all that chatter.

Much can be said of the power of a community center like a barbershop, particularly in a distressed neighborhood where opportunity rarely knocks.

1988's "Coming to America" hinted at the comic possibilities lurking in such a setting, with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall masquerading as bickering old men waiting for a snip.

"Barbershop" can't make good on that premise, but it does see the dignity in a profession our culture rarely celebrates.


**

TITLE: "Barbershop"

RATING: PG-13 (Brief moments of violence, strong language)

CREDITS: Directed by Tim Story

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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