For a guy who has been accused of propagating every antisocial attitude in the book, Ice Cube's film career has included moments of remarkable humanism. Take his directorial debut, "The Players Club," which depicted with great sympathy one woman's struggle for economic emancipation. The ice man's heart is at its warmest in "Barbershop," a frequently delightful comedy-drama co-produced by his Cube Vision company.
Cube plays Calvin Palmer, the uneasy heir to a family head-cutting business on the south side of Chicago. Calvin knows that he's ill-equipped to run the financially embattled shop, but only dimly aware of its importance as an unofficial cultural center -- two qualities that make him susceptible to a buyout from loan shark Lester Wallace (Keith David). (Lest we miss the point that Lester is a blight on the 'hood, he's tricked out in a blue pimp hat and shadowed by the rhythmic pulse of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman.") While Calvin puts his legacy on the auction block, the lighter side of ghetto commerce is represented by two small-time hoods (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) who engineer a smash-and-grab of a nearby convenience store, coming away with an automatic-teller machine they spend the rest of the movie trying to bust open.
That running gag is "Barbershop's" low point, a slapstick indulgence that becomes tiresome faster than you can name any two Wayans brothers. But both it and the Calvin/Lester conflict are mere excuses for dialogue-rich barbershop sequences in which Calvin and his resident follicle specialists debate every subject under the sun, in tones that fluctuate from playful to passionate. (Sample argument: Was Rosa Parks a crusader for racial equality, or just really tired?)
The participants need little introduction or explanation. College student Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) is trying to distance himself from his low-class surroundings, leading to friction with Isaac (Troy Garity), a white guy who thinks "black." Terri (rapper Eve) is a tough-talking sister with man problems, and Ricky (Michael Ealy) is a two-time loser just one more crime away from permanent incarceration. And then there's Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), an older barber who can hold forth on any controversial topic -- just don't expect his opinions to be completely tethered to reality.
Stereotypes? Not really. Thanks to alert performances and clever writing (the lion's share supplied by Mark Brown of "Two Can Play at That Game"), the denizens of Calvin's place feel like icons rather than caricatures. And the shop setting entirely justifies the occasional soapbox harangue. Director Tim Story, whose past experience is limited to music videos, makes it all work with a filmmaking style that rides the kinetic wave of lively conversation. Pratfalls aside, Barbershop gets its greatest play from the timeless spectacle of people really talking to each other.