LOS ANGELES, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- The modestly budgeted ensemble comedy "Barbershop" is one of the most likable movies of the year, sort of a black "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
The conservative moral and social messages and unhip style (complete with Laurel and Hardy-style slapstick) of "Barbershop" have left ill at ease many white critics -- the kind whose highest term of praise is "subversive."
Rapper Ice Cube stars as a Chicagoan who reluctantly took over his father's venerable barbershop. With his wife pregnant, he's staring at a lifetime of cutting heads to pay the bills. In response, he's been wasting money on get-rich-quick schemes and glamorous pipe dreams, such as the expensive recording studio he's set up at home. Now, the taxman is after him, and he is thinking of selling the shop to the local loan shark.
During one long, possibly final, day at the barbershop, he learns just how important his small business is to the people around him, and to his responsibilities as a husband and new father.
If you are having trouble telling your frozen gangsta rappers apart, Ice Cube was a member of N.W.A. and wrote "F--- tha Police." He appeared in "Boyz N the Hood" and "Three Kings." In indistinct contrast, Ice-T wrote "Cop Killer" and appeared in "New Jack City." Ice Cube is the pudgy one, Ice-T the light, ugly one.
(The one white barber in the shop -- performed nicely by Troy Garity, the son of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden -- is a dimwitted but sincere Jewish wigger who dresses like Eminem. His character is named "Isaac Rosenberg," which I guess would make him "Ice Berg.")
A lot of white reviewers seem disconcerted by seeing the legendary Mr. Cube, whose "Straight Outta Compton" album was the soundtrack for the 1992 L.A. riots, play, with understated conviction, a character roughly modeled on Jimmy Stewart's in "It's a Wonderful Life." At least since Norman Mailer's hey-day in the 1950s, white culturati bored with bourgeois self-discipline have proven a sizable market for black entertainers acting out their fantasies of rebellion against society.
But, the times they are a-changin'. Among blacks, crime and crack use are way down since 1992. A steady black audience has emerged for all-black movies endorsing family values.
These days, integrated dramas intended for mostly white audiences, such as the Robert De Niro-Cuba Gooding Jr. Navy film "Men of Honor" (the last movie by producers of "Barbershop"), tend to be about white racism. In contrast, all-black movies for black audiences, such as same team's 1997 hit "Soul Food," tend to be about African-Americans getting their acts together morally.
While Ice Cube quietly struggles with his choice, an energetic cast gets a lot of laughs as the other six barbers.
Comedian Cedric the Entertainer steals the movie as the crypto-retired eldest barber, a colleague of Ice Cube's late father. Cedric comes to the shop every day, but hasn't had a customer in years, perhaps because his own personal hairstyle, an enormous Afro with a lopsided part, hasn't been in fashion since Frederick Douglass was advising Abe Lincoln.
He doesn't mind, though, because the shop gives him a forum for his challenging views: "I wouldn't be saying this if there were white folks around, but there are three things blacks got to admit: Rodney King deserved to get his ass beat. O.J. did it. And Rosa Parks wasn't that special, just tired." The blacks in the preview audience howled and clapped.
When an argument over slavery reparations breaks out, the sage forcefully, if semi-literately, declares, "Respirations ain't gonna do nothing except make Cadillac the No. 1 dealership in the country."
"Barbershops" play a particularly important role for men in the "inner city community" precisely because, as Jamaican-born Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has observed, due to low rates of stable employment and marriage, it's just not all that much of a community. That term reflects aspirations (or, as Cedric's character might say, "apparitions") more than current reality.
In the quiet centerpiece of the movie, the old barber offers the young owner his own lesson: "The barbershop is the place where a black man means something -- cornerstone of the neighborhood, our country club." He goes on, "Now, your father -- he had integrity, he believed in somethin'. He believed that a little ol' haircut could change how a man was feelin' that day."
Rated PG-13 for language, sexual content, and brief drug references.