It's not hard to see why "Barbershop" was a crossover hit. A funny, sweet-tempered movie about people trying to get ahead while holding on to a familiar and reassuring sense of community not only cut across racial lines but political ones as well. The director, Tim Story, came up with a message that existed in that strange place where progressive values sometimes dovetail with conservative ones (and by "conservative," I don't mean right-wing extremist).
The makers of the new sequel "Barbershop 2: Back in Business" -- director Kevin Rodney Sullivan and his co-writers, Don D. Scott and Mark Brown -- are trying for that same mix here. In this installment, the Chicago South Side barbershop is threatened by a retail development deal that will put a national haircutting chain ("Nappy Cutz") across the street from the old-time place owned by Calvin (Ice Cube). With not just cities but small towns fighting the incursion of retail giants like Wal-Mart, when most of us awake each morning fully expecting to discover that, overnight, a Starbucks franchise has opened in our kitchen, who isn't ready to respond to this scenario?
But "Barbershop 2" plays up what was the least successful part of the first movie -- the side that preached about its values instead of trusting them to unfold in the course of the story. Ice Cube even gets stuck with a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment, making a speech before a meeting of city aldermen (typical of his instincts as an actor, he downplays it). The bad guy here, a corrupt alderman played by Robert Wisdom, has none of the Stagger Lee flash of Keith David's loan shark, the first movie's villain; he's merely as caricatured and unfunny as crooked pols usually are in the movies. The threat of the retail giant is resolved in a way that's a mixture of admirable honesty and Hollywood uplift.
The picture might have gotten by with all this if it were better made. Sullivan (whose last picture, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," was a juicy updating of '40s "women's" melodrama) doesn't have Tim Story's gift for orchestrating the everyday business of the barbershop as a kind of casual choreography. It's a very stiff movie, often shot in close-up and, to the detriment of the both the story and the performers' rhythms, frequently and pointlessly venturing outside the shop itself. The writers have set several love stories burgeoning among the characters. But, lazily, with each story they show us the beginning of a mutual attraction only to leave us hanging until they get around to providing a resolution. In none of the three cases do we get the pleasure of watching the characters flirt and fall in love (and in one of the stories, about a couple who get back together after years apart, the filmmakers don't even bother to tell us what drove them apart in the first place).
The clumsiness makes you grateful for the small felicities, like the title sequence, brilliantly edited by Paul Seydor, which manages a visual history of the last 35 years of black celebrity style in the course of about three minutes. (It also includes a shot that finishes Michael Jackson like parsley on a steak.)
What holds the movie together is the cast. This has got to be one of the sweetest groups of actors who've been assembled for any recent comedy. (As each familiar character entered, I felt myself grinning back at the screen.)
Whatever we mean by audience rapport, Ice Cube has it. He's one of the few actors who can play an average, harried man without condescending to them or making them falsely noble (Donald Sutherland is another). He makes you pull for Calvin, and he carries the meaning of both movies -- everything that's at stake in maintaining the shop he inherited from his father -- squarely on his shoulders. The filmmakers have kept in mind the ruckus stirred up by Cedric the Entertainer's remarks in the first movie. When his Eddie, the veteran barber who is the place's cracked eminence grise, is at his funniest ("The D.C. sniper is the Jackie Robinson of crime," and the inevitable R. Kelly joke) Cedric makes you howl as your jaw is hitting your lap. He's not well served by the flashbacks showing Eddie's past life (they're not fleshed out enough) but in the first one, the sight of him near tears as his process is shorn off is priceless.
Queen Latifah shows up in a few scenes as the owner of the beauty parlor down the street (and Calvin's old flame) and she doesn't have nearly enough to do, a shame since, as always, she is glorious to watch. But Eve, with her cocoa skin and cascade of golden hair, is not only easy on the eyes but also has the combination of sass and sweetness that made people love the screen comediennes of the '30s. When she and Michael Ealy's Ricky come together in a slow kiss, the movie sends up a soft shower of sexy fireworks. There's another pair of charmers in the cast -- Troy Garity, who's on the hunk side of galoot, as the white b-boy Isaac, and big, cuddly Leonard Earl Howze as the West African Dinka (though I wanted more of Garcelle Beauvais as the woman smitten with Dinka -- they're such an adorable match, couldn't we at least have seen them kiss?).
"Barbershop 2" is like going out for a bad meal with a group of people you love being with. You're happy to be in their company; you just wish you didn't leave feeling hungry.