A less raucous and more serious-minded neighborhood comedy than its entertaining predecessor, “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” still provides enough solid, character-based amusement to put customers in the chairs and send them out content with services rendered. Focused as much on Cedric the Entertainer’s highly popular (and momentarily controversial) uncensored opinion machine Eddie as on Ice Cube’s shop proprietor, sequel comes by its weightier tone due to the central theme spotlighting the threat posed to small family businesses by mushrooming chain franchises. Domestic B.O. will approach but likely not surpass the $75.8 million generated by the 2002 original, although all theatrical biz will have to be done Stateside; first entry earned all of $1.3 million overseas, as international distrib Fox couldn’t stir up any interest in the almost entirely verbal ethnic funfest outside of some small change in Asia. But substantial home entertainment revenues will make this limitation a moot point.
Aside from its comic content, first film struck a chord with the public, including a sizeable crossover crowd, due to its portrayal of the barbershop as a cornerstone of an old-style storefront neighborhood and, significantly, a last bastion of free speech, where everyone is free to say whatever is on their minds. This last part didn’t go down too well with Jesse Jackson, whose feathers were so ruffled he demanded some of Cedric the Entertainer’s lines about him and Martin Luther King Jr. be changed for homevid release.
Although the filmmakers rightly declined to make any alterations, they have largely steered clear of political targets this time around. Cedric’s Eddie sounds off about the D.C. sniper (“the Jackie Robinson of crime” because he “broke into the white league” of serial killing), biracial celebs like Tiger Woods, Jennifer Beals and Vin Diesel, and alleged child molesters R. Kelly and Michael Jackson.
But the sociopolitical subjects broached by screenwriter Don D. Scott, who was one of three scripters on the original, are generally not the butt of jokes; while treated broadly, they relate mostly to the ways of big city politics and the squeeze put on mom-and-pop operations when corporate America hits the hood.
A few things have changed at the shop since it was last seen. After all his previous ambivalence about the enterprise he inherited from his father, Calvin (Cube) has become proud of his establishment, a place where the good times roll even when much of the talk is superficially acrimonious; the formerly inept white homey Isaac (Troy Garity) is now a wizard with the electric blade; the highfalutin’ Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) has left to take a job with local alderman Brown (Robert Wisdom), and ex-con Ricky (Michael Ealy) and spirited femme haircutter Terri (Eve) may have something percolating.
Then there’s Queen Latifah’s Gina, a former girlfriend of Calvin’s who works at a salon right next door to the barbershop. Latifah gets good supporting character screen time here, but stint is really just a warm-up for her spin-off starring vehicle “Beauty Shop,” which starts shooting with the same producers next month.
The good-natured folk at the shop go into a spin when they notice what’s under construction across the street: Nappy-Cutz, a trendy national chain featuring vibrating chairs, videoscreens, aquariums and even a basketball court. Calvin’s optimistic take that “Change is a good thing” is put to rest by the outlet’s slick business rep Quentin (Harry Lennix), who assures him the old shop will be out of business within six months.
Calvin is further unsettled when some other small business owners, who are tempted to accept the already generous offers to sell being tendered by big real estate interests, tell him they could probably double their money if he went along, too.
When Calvin decides to hold firm, he undertakes a few community-friendly initiatives to cement customer loyalty, such as redecorating and telling his employees to keep their voices down; latter move creates a library-like feel, casting a pall over the joint that makes the reality of the threat sink in.
Calvin also throws a neighborhood barbecue, an event that merely provides an excuse for Eddie and Gina to get into an argument, triggering a toe-to-toe throwdown between Cedric and the Queen. And while it’s mouth-watering to anticipate comic fireworks between these two frame-bursting talents, the results aren’t quite the gut-busters one hopes for; amusing enough, but hardly galvanizing.
Same could be said for the entire film. As the drama accelerates around whether Calvin will capitulate to the profitable forces of gentrification or do the right thing by his heritage and community, the lack of accumulated laughs appears more noticeable. At the same time, the characters have generated a sense of family akin to those on beloved sitcoms, so watching them represents a pleasure regardless. Unsurprisingly, climax involves a Capra-esque public repudiation of greed and big money interests by the ordinary citizen hero.
Taking over the directing reins from Tim Story, helmer Kevin Rodney Sullivan (“How Stella Got Her Groove Back”) takes a fair amount of the action out of the barbershop, onto the streets, into characters’ residences and even into the past; latter is an important way in which Eddie’s character has been expanded, as flashbacks reveal how he came to the shop in the first place back in the ’60s and other youthful misadventures, some of them on an El train.
Returning thesps all fit into their roles as if they were comfortable old chairs. Newcomers Lennix, Wisdom and Kenan Thompson, the latter as brash Calvin’s young cousin who makes a mess of his short stint at the shop, work in broad strokes. Except for returning lenser Tom Priestley, main tech team is new, but film is of a piece with the original, thanks as much as anything to the lived-in feel of the Chicago settings.