By Mixing Comedy With Social Commentary, 'Barbershop: The Next Cut' Finds Its Voice

With one foot in the contemporary and the other in the franchise's past, this latest installment of Barber Shop is fresh, funny, and not overly familiar.

Barbershop: The Next Cut

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast: Ice Cube, Cedric The Entertainer, Eve, Nicky Minaj, Regina Hall, Michael Rainey Jr.
Rated: R
Studio: MGM
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-04-15 (General release)
UK date: 2016-04-15 (General release)

Comedies rarely tackle contemporary issues as frankly and as freshly as Barbershop: The Next Cut. As an ensemble, as a way of working multiple characters into a coherent plot, it can be episodic and uneven and the message can get mired in a tendency toward monologue-esque preaching. Yet the comedy is honest, as is the sentiment, and all the emotion is earned.

This is a cinematic rarity -- an ambitious social commentary that also wants to split your sides with rude, crude profane humor. Thanks to the amazing cast, and the assured direction of Malcolm D. Lee, it all comes together in a completely satisfying way. It won't change the world, but it might help you see it in a clever, compelling way.

Ice Cube, clearly sick of being known as the former gangster rapper turned into a PG-lite family film fixture, has reinvested himself in his previous persona, here, and along with his work on the amazing N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, he's reestablishing his "urban" voice, if you will. Barbershop: The Next Cut may do little to reinvent the genre, but with its eye on the communal prize, it proffers a wholly enjoyable experience.

No, this movie is not perfect. Certainly, it sees its crime story as the most significant part of the story (our setting is the South Side of Chicago, after all) but the interpersonal stuff is also necessary and important. It’s what pushes us along as jokes and other planned punchlines miss. It’s also why, when the ending arrives, we're left feeling very invested int he story.

Describing the plot can be a bit tricky, considering how many individual storylines are swirling around here. The main one deals with Ice Cube’s Calvin Palmer Jr., his part-ownership of the neighborhood meeting place known as the barbershop, and his desire to protect his teenage son Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.) from the various gangs circling him. Our lead also has wants to up and move to the North Side, which forces him to deal with an anxious partner (Regina King), the beauty shop they share with Eve, Margot Bingham, and newcomer Nicky Minaj. There’s also the "old coot crackpot", if you will, (Cedric The Entertainment), the Hustler (J.B. Smoove) and a menagerie of past players and new editions.

It’s easy to see the patterns in Barbershop: The Next Cut. First we offer up a situational set-up. Then the gang comes into the picture. Soon, it’s time to regale the crowd with bathroom humor, pop culture references, and dick jokes. Once the gross out is over, the intense drama steps in. Add a tragedy, or a pitfall that requires overcoming, and you’ve got an honest attempt at offering something for everyone.

Malcolm D. Lee can easily juggle multiple characters and multiple storylines. He makes the various elements gel, not flawlessly, but with enough grace to leave viewers satisfied. We are drawn in watching people deal with the turmoil around them. We enjoy the nods to nostalgia and the inclusion of current trends. Again, it's a delicate balancing act and Lee makes it legitimate.

The performances are also pitched at the crowd pleasing level. Characters commit to riffs and routines that they know will bring a smile (or serious concern) to the viewer's face, and yet Barbershop: The Next Cut, never forgets to focus on making them real people. We understand Calvin's complaints, feel his family (both in and out of work) pulling him in different directions. Cube has always been a fascinating performer, often much, much better than the movie he is in. Here, we see something that matches his talent, and it's a pleasure to behold.

In fact, the entire cast creates an atmosphere of love and respect that rubs off the rest of the film. We can't wait for another sequence where the laughs flow from individuals merely shooting the shit, and there's rarely a missed opportunity. Again, they don't always end up in the guffaws the creator's imagined, but in a jovial, genial manner, the movie makes it work.

Yes, some may object to the fact that the real life crisis going on in Chicago is set against a backdrop of blue humor, but that seems to be the point here. We laugh to keep from crying. We come together to keep from screaming.

As a fourth installment in a film franchise no one anticipated needing, Barbershop: The Next Cut is very good. It tries many ambitious things, and for the most part, succeeds. That's a rarity, indeed.


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