Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Shop Around the Corner: BARBERSHOP: THE NEXT CUT

It has been twelve years, but now the shaggy hangout vibe of the Barbershop comedies is back for a third time. It’s also the best one yet. Set in the same small independent black-owned barbershop on the south side of Chicago, Barbershop: The Next Cut gives up on being a movie and instead brings the charm as a big screen sitcom. This frees it up to be a comfortable location for staging sharply observed and warmly felt social commentary comedy, sparkling with smart sociological sentiment and compassionate character work. It’s written by veterans of TV comedy Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Tracy Oliver (Survivor’s Remorse), who recognize the film’s strength is in making the barbershop a place we want to relax in, enjoying our fly-on-the-wall status as the various barbers, customers, and neighborhood regulars wander through. It’s a big-hearted welcoming movie with serious topics on its mind, but a light touch making it all go down easy.

The shop’s owner (Ice Cube, the series' nice center) is continuing in his father’s footsteps, making the establishment a gathering place for its employees and clients to shoot the breeze while getting their hair done. It’s a great location for a comedy, allowing a variety of characters to interact, talk out their differences, engage in funny banter, squabble and argue, fret and worry about the issues of the day, and find a way to work together. The barbershop is a stage for debates and riffs, parallel stand-up sets in progress punctuated by teasing chitchat. It now shares space – and rent – with the neighborhood beauty shop, which lends the proceedings an element of battle-of-the-sexes, but not in any reductive way. The result is merely one more outlet for a joking collision between various points of view, where the film draws its energy as an appealing clash of charismatic personalities.

The men (like old irritable Cedric the Entertainer, grayed and wrinkled by talented artists, and younger guys like Common, Lamorne Morris, and Utkarsh Ambudkar) and the women (including Regina Hall, Eve, and Nicki Minaj) have an interesting dynamic, dredging up usually unspoken resentments and deconstructing modern gender dynamics from surprising angles. The film lets them have their disagreements, finding common ground where it can and respecting their differences where it can’t. It’s fair that way, a safe space that allows them to discuss beauty standards, race relations, gang activity, gun violence, police misconduct, respectability politics, small business struggles, and more. It’s an amiable peacekeeping movie, not afraid to get serious when it needs to. The film finds a Chicago in pain, wracked with problems – homicides, poverty, broken institutions – people seem at a loss to fix. And yet there’s hope, positing that even small gestures of goodness can make a difference.

You can think of it as Chi-raq’s little cousin, and not because that’s what director Malcolm D. Lee is to Spike. Funnily enough, though it is less cinematically ambitious or angrily satirical, Barbershop: The Next Cut is a more consistent film, and no less politically engaged. It doesn’t take big swings, but it connects every time. Malcolm D. Lee is skilled with juggling tones and tracking motivations across a wide ensemble. (His Best Man Holiday, for example, is one of the better comic melodramas of late.) Here he weaves a deft dance of stereotype and insight, following not so much a story as it is loose strands of subplots woven together – romances, relationships, parenting problems, jealousies, business moves, and gang violence. He allows the characters to express a range of opinions, doubts, and conflicts, examining them in a casual, low-key, often-amusing tone well balanced with seriousness.

Though the look is sitcom bright and simple, there is heavy drama here. One dramatic subplot finds Cube’s son (Michael Rainey Jr.) drawing close to a gang leader (Tyga) who wants a new recruit. But there is also the lightest of light touches. Cut to J.B. Smoove as a smooth talking one-stop-shop with the kind of patter only he can bring, Anthony Anderson as a loud food truck entrepreneur, or Deon Cole as a daffy customer who seems to never leave, and we’re in a much sillier range. Like Black-ish, currently finishing its terrific second season on ABC, The Next Cut comes from a clear perspective, with great specificity to its humor and wearing a social consciousness on its sleeve. This animates and bolsters its attempts to present honest conversation in a way that keeps the comedy flowing without short-changing its important topics. The movie's appeal is best represented in the wheezing bluster of Cedric the Entertainer, whose elderly barber loves to mix it up with the youngsters and never seems to have a customer. (That memorably changes in a priceless scene in the end credits.) He just loves hanging out in this barbershop, and it’s easy to see why.

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