Directed by Malcolm D. Lee.
2016. Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.
Cedric the Entertainer
Michael Rainey Jr.
The original Barbershop is a cute, funny feel-good flick featuring Ice Cube right at the beginning of his family-friendly phase. He plays Calvin, owner of a Chicago area barbershop he inherited from his dad. It's perfectly likable, but no one was clamoring for a sequel. We got one anyway. Thankfully, it is also a very fun film and is arguably better than the first. Still, it didn't necessarily leave us thirsty for a third one. Somehow, here we are changing this pair of films into a trilogy. I'm excluding Beauty Shop, the spin-off of Barbershop 2 starring Queen Latifah.
To begin this third outing, we see that Calvin's has changed a lot in our time away. It's been twelve years, if you can believe that. No longer is it the bastion of male bonding it once was, even with the presence of Terri (Eve). It's now a full-blown unisex barbershop/salon with as many female employees as male. It's even implied that the ladies are raking in lots more dough than the fellas, too. This little detail is largely left out of the battle of the sexes that is the subject of many of the film's conversations. There is also the potential affair between Draya (Minaj), one of the lady stylists and Rashad (Common), a barber who's apparently a vet, though he is one of many new faces to the franchise. The problem is Rashad is married to Terri. None of this stuff is what the film is actually about. The reason we're here is that the inner-cities of Chicago have become war zones. This affects Calvin in a couple ways. First, a gang war is raging in the area where the barbershop is located. Second, there is also lots of gang activity at the high school Calvin's son Jalen (Rainey Jr.) attends. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jalen is seriously considering joining one of the warring factions. As a way to reach out to the community and his own son, Calvin and the crew at the shop try to organize a forty-eight hour cease-fire.
Calvin is once again the veritable every-man carrying our hopes and dreams with him. He also functions as a conduit for the audience. While he grounds the movie, it is the other players who shine. The most familiar face besides Calvin's is that of the shop's wise old sage Eddie (Cedric). In what's become one extended performance stretched over three films, Cedric the Entertainer is once again excellent and gets plenty of laughs. This franchise presents us with what's easily the best work of his cinematic career. Eve's Terri is the only other holdover among the employees, save for a pair of cameos from series vets Isaac (Troy Garity) and Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas). She does well, but is a much narrower character without the tumultuous coupling with Ricky (Michael Ealy), who does not appear at all, nor even warrants a mention. Terri is now simply the suspicious wife, allowed the occasional outburst. Anthony Anderson's J.D. is also back, having skipped the second installment of the series. His storyline was vaguely amusing, but honestly could have been completely dumped from the movie and not changed it at all.
Among the newcomers, Common has the biggest role. He's usually a wooden performer. He does have a few moments of stiffness, but overall he's pretty decent. That alone makes it some of his best work. Rather than rewriting the same three sentences to describe Nicki Minaj's performance I'll just say 'ditto' for her. I will also add that her work is "enhanced" by her plethora of tight and/or revealing outfits. Regina Hall is here as Angie. She runs things on the salon side, but really has nothing to do as far as the narrative is concerned. Utkarsh Ambudkar is solid as Raja, a barber clearly meant to provide the audience with a Republican point of view. Unfortunately, his acting is hampered by his character's tendency to speechify. Same goes for Margot Bingham as Bree, another one of the stylists. Lamorne Morris of TV's The New Girl is the most impressive of the bunch, easily fitting into the dynamics of the shop. His character, Jerrod, is somewhat awkward, but he handles it effortlessly and is the most consistently hilarious person in the movie. Deon Cole's Dante, the customer who seems to never go home, and J.B. Smoove's One Stop, are both hot on his heels with plenty of great moments of their own.
The movie flourishes within the confines of the shop. It also does well with the father-son relationship between Calvin and Jalen. Their interactions, good and bad, are not unlike those between my own son and I. Even though Jalen does disappear for stretches at a time, it's clear the son, our sons for viewers, is the reason for all the hand-wringing. This gives the film a bit more gravity than the two prior entries in the series. Sadly, the film struggles in presenting the other father-son relationship in the film. It completely botches it, to be blunt. That relationship involves Rashad and Kelly (Thompson). The film pays lots of lip service to Rashad being a great father, but shows us nothing of the sort. Instead, we focus on that affair he may or may not have by movie's end. For instance, when Kenny and Jalen get in trouble together at school, it's only Calvin who shows up and he barely acknowledges Kenny. Kenny himself is merely a plot device used to help maneuver Jalen from place to place. The unintended consequence of this is Kenny's life feels less important. This undermines the film's message just a smidge. It would be a lot more damaging if we weren't so caught up in Jalen's story to notice.
Like its predecessors, The Next Cut ably, and accurately portrays the shop as the location for a meeting of the neighborhood minds. No topic is taboo, with politics once again being the one to which we most often circle back. With regards to this, the first two films focused on gentrification in one form or another. This time, the talk is about what can, should, and/or will be done to curb the violence running rampant in city streets. The discussions on this are heated, funny, and insightful. By insightful, I don't mean that the film comes up with any great solutions because it doesn't. I mean it lets us in on the way people genuinely feel. Dialogue may be a bit unrealistically presented because everyone almost always gets to express their full point with minimal interruptions, but it feels needed for the film to express its full scope of ideas.
Given the subject matter, the setting, and the fact I'm only a few weeks removed from watching it, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq was on my mind the entire time I was watching The Next Cut. There's no question Lee took much greater creative risks with his film. After all, it's a semi-musical where everyone speaks in verse, mostly couplets, and it's based on a play written before Christ was even a twinkling in His Father's eye. Unfortunately, the point his film is trying to make gets lost in all the artistic flourishes. Compared to The Next Cut, Chi-Raq is an abstract painting. Whether or not Chi-Raq is "better" is a matter of opinion. What can't be denied is the straightforward approach of The Next Cut makes it far more accessible. This is the film with which more people will readily identify, enjoy, and take inspiration from. That makes it the more important film. As part of a well-liked franchise that has always had a little more on its mind than your average comedy. The Next Cut is bound to be watched and rewatched many times, and likely to stick with viewers. Chi-Raq is a polarizing film destined to be debated by cinephiles like me, but largely forgotten and/or dismissed by its target audience. I'm okay with that. The Next Cut can occasionally be preachy, even a bit hokey, but it's also loads of fun with its heart in the right place.