O'Shea Jackson has turned out to be a surprisingly gracious movie star. Jackson, better known as rapper Ice Cube, has built up an impressive resume of film performances since his 1991 debut in Boyz in the Hood. Ice Cube has a good, honest screen presence: With his round, sullen face and stocky physicality, he doesn't seem much like a lead actor, and he seems to know it - He usually appears in ensemble pieces, such as Boyz and his self-produced Friday series (1995's Friday, 2000's Next Friday, and the soon-to-be-released Friday After Next). Unlike fellow rapper-turned-film-actor Will Smith, Cube's role choices have rarely been flashy or self-aggrandizing. Instead, he is often the irritable center of a storm of character actors, many of whom play far showier characters than their leading man. Friday, after all, was nearly dominated by the shrill Chris Tucker, quickly replaced by the equally shrill Mike Epps in the sequel. At times, Cube seemed to have little to do but scowl at his boisterous costars, and one would expect that a self-made movie star might want to do a little more with his screen time.
However, Cube seems to be perfectly happy to hand his movies over to other actors, and perhaps it is this same sense of community that fuels his latest comedy, Barbershop. Cube plays Calvin, a third-generation owner of a barbershop in Chicago's South Side, and some of the film details his unhappy attempt to sell the barbershop to a neighborhood gentleman of leisure, played, with oily, toothy humor by Keith David. But Cube's story, which frames the film, is crowded out by the stories of the half-dozen employees of the barbershop, and Cube steps readily out of their way. These roles are filled out with an eclectic assortment of character actors, comics and rappers, and the mix is intentionally explosive. Cedric the Entertainer, as an example, plays a wheezy, chatty older barber with a graying, neatly parted, somewhat oversized afro. He views himself as the shop's resident truth-teller, and delights in shocking his fellow employees with pronouncements about Martin Luther King Junior's infidelities, O.J. Simpson's guilt, and Rosa Park's historical status. When Cedric's mouth opens, Cube all but disappears, letting the comedian run away with every scene he is in.
Barbershop has the feel of a jokey, meandering one-set play. The story frequently wanders, but rarely away from the barbershop, an institution that Cedric the Entertainer insists is the African-American equivalent of a country club. The film's barbers are a quarrelsome lot - rapper Eve seems to do very little but throw a series of tizzies, and actor Sean Patrick Thomas, playing a college-educated busybody, spends most of the film tormenting his coworkers. One, played by a heavy lidded, gold-necklace-wearing Troy Garity, becomes the subject of Thomas's ire for being a white man with a black girlfriend, a Cadillac SUV, and a mouth full of ghetto put-downs. Another barber, played by Michael Ealy, comes under fire for having a criminal record. But the film even wanders away from the growing bile between these men: A near-fight is neatly interrupted when Marvin Gaye's "Gotta Give It Up (Part One)" comes on the radio, and the barbershop's denizens pause to listen to the song, swaying in time to the music. The film briefly cuts away to others residents of Chicago, similarly pausing for Gaye's tune. At the end of this, the camera cuts to Cube, watching from a distance.
The film has points to make, most extending from the barbershop's status as a communal center. And Barbershop pauses to make these points, often without much subtlety, but these pauses are brief. The camera quickly turns away, sometimes even in the middle of a character's jeremiad, to look for another punch line, or another small story to tell, or another shot of Ice Cube, watching from the edge of the frame.
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