Are we sure it’s been 12 years since the last “Barbershop” sequel? In the case of “Barbershop: The Next Cut”, the third film in the franchise or fourth if you want to include spinoff “Beauty Shop”, it doesn’t feel as if any time has passed at all. That’s a remarkable feat given all of the lousy comedy sequels of late, many of which separated from their predecessors by more than a decade. But with “Barbershop”, it succeeds by staying focused on the core values that have made these movies so beloved and successful: faith, family, and community.
And right away it’s clear that ‘The Next Cut’ is going to be more topical than before, acting as a response to the gun violence plaguing Chicago. While this may seem like well-worn territory in the wake of Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”, it delivers its message of non-violence through comforting jokes and freshly cut hair rather than elaborate rhyming verse. Another reason it doesn’t feel as if any time has passed is that most of the cast is back, looking and acting much the same as before. Ice Cube returns as Calvin, whose barbershop remains a pillar of the Chicago community. He’s always weighed down by some hardship or other, and in this case he’s worried about the safety of his son, Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.), who is beginning to see the allure of the gangster lifestyle. Shaggy, motormouthed veteran Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) is still flappin’ his gums more than he cuts actual hair. His observations are as pinpoint and controversial as ever, whether they be on the fairer sex, Barack Obama, or the inevitable Bill Cosby crack.
Like Eddie, many of the characters seem to be in the same place they’ve always been, but a few have taken some interesting forward steps. Angie (Regina Hall, rockin’ a mean blue-haired look) is now part owner, with her beauty shop occupying half the space and doubling the tension. The perpetually hard-working Terri (Eve) is now married to the soulful Rashad (Common, making his first appearance in the series), but their marriage is troubled and he’s caught the eye of bootylicious stylist, Dreya (Nicki Minaj). If anything, the “Barbershop” movies have done a lot to promote rapper/actor careers, and they all have fit in well, probably due to the loose, laid back atmosphere. Other new additions fit right in, such as JB Smoove as the shady, enterprising One-Stop; “New Girl”‘s Lamorne Morris as the nerdy Jarrod; Utkarsh Ambudkar as cool Indian barber, Raja; and Margot Bingham makes a mighty impression as Bree, the resident feminist sista.
Each has their own subplot going on, and the screenplay often struggles to keep up with them. The same goes for returning director Malcolm D. Lee, who has an understandable amount of difficulty keeping track of a dozen characters holding court in the same room. While some of these subplots don’t work (like Anthony Anderson’s shady food truck business), when these characters are allowed to just riff off one another the film is a laugh riot because much of what they say rings true. “Barbershop” cultivated a certain chemistry right from the very beginning and it has never gone away, even as characters come and go. So when the gang makes fun of Eddie for being old and useless, it doesn’t feel mean-spirited, but the gentle ribbing all friends give one another.
That familiarity also makes the painful moments sting just a little bit more, and no matter how much fun is being had, we’re always pulled back into Chicago’s grim reality. As well intentioned as the gang violence plot may be, it often makes for a clumsy and heavy-handed fit for a film that clearly wants to make you laugh first. Every time we catch up with Jalen it’s like being slapped in the face with a dead fish; you just want to go back to the warming embrace of the barbershop where people are busy jonin on one another. But even that get messed up by a couple of violent blow-ups right under Calvin’s roof, leading him to make a fateful and sobering decision to protect his son’s future.
It’s interesting to think back to where Ice Cube was 20 years ago. Not only was he embroiled in a vicious rap feud with Common (check out Common’s diss track, “Bitch in Yoo” where he absolutely crushes Cube), but he was starring in “Boyz n the Hood”, one of the first films to really bring the issue of gang violence to a broader audience. Many of the same themes and simple solutions then are made in “Barbershop: The Next Cut”, only now Cube is about as far away from Doughboy as anyone could have ever imagined. In that film, it would have been inconceivable for the President of the United States to come walking into South Central. But now, the first African-American President (or a reasonable facsimile) can stroll right into Calvin’s Chicago barbershop; get a fresh cut and a chance at some side booty. In a way, that sounds a lot like progress.