THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Have you ever been in a public place that had such an incredible atmosphere that you didn't want to leave? If so, was it the kind of place that was filled with interesting, colorful people who were fun just to listen to? And if it was not the most opulent setting in the world, did that somehow only add to the appeal? Such a place can be found in the comedy Barbershop. Set in the titular shop on the South side of Chicago, the movie does something that is extremely difficult: it creates a place that feels so real, you kind of forget you're watching a movie. When the theater lights came up, I only knew that I wanted to go back to the shop tomorrow.

Ice Cube stars as Calvin, a young man who inherited the barbershop from his father, who inherited it from his father. Calvin carries on the family business but dreams of something more. He wants to open a recording studio to discover new musicians, figuring that if he's successful he can buy a nice house for his girlfriend and their soon-to-be-arriving baby. This is only the latest in a succession of his get-rich schemes, none of which have been even remotely profitable.

Ice Cube (center) heads up an all-star cast in the comedy Barbershop
The people who work in the barbershop are varied to say the least: Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) is educated and quick to tell everybody that he will go on to better things; Terri (rap star Eve) uses her sassy attitude to hide the pain caused by a philandering boyfriend; Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze) is an African poet who has a crush on Terri; Ricky (Michael Ealy) is a two-time felon trying to go straight; Isaac (Troy Garity) is white, but is fully emerged in hip-hop culture and anguished over the fact that none of the black customers will let him cut their hair. Last but not least is Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), a veteran barber who spends more time dispensing bits of wisdom than he does cutting heads.

The barbershop is a great place to hang out. Unfortunately, it is also in debt and Calvin can't pay the bank loan. In desperation, he turns to a loan shark named Lester (Keith David). The guy pays $20,000 for the place, but Calvin soon realizes the shop is too important to sell. Meanwhile, in a running subplot, two local crooks (Anthony Anderson and Lahmard Tate) steal an ATM machine; once they have it, they discover that it's not so easy to get the money out.

The plot in Barbershop is, in some ways, secondary to the setting. What makes this movie tick is the colorful interaction of the characters in that shop. There are rivalries and jealousies, friendships and attractions. The place is always filled with customers who are ready to debate any subject at any time. I loved the way the movie captures the essence of conversation, especially the constant back-and-forth that inevitably takes place when so many different people all weigh in with their opinions. One of the best scenes involves Eddie's political views, which run counter to the firmly held beliefs of everyone else in the shop. He declares that Rodney King deserved to get beaten, that OJ Simpson was guilty, and that Rosa Parks was not really a civil rights leader. The scene doesn't come off as incendiary or hateful; it's just presented as the character's call-it-as-I-see-it attitude. It wouldn't be fair to reveal the scene's punch line, but it got a rousing reaction from everyone in the crowd (myself included).

The film's ability to capture lively discussions and personal interactions makes it special. But more than that, this is a movie that celebrates the things that make America great. It endorses the entrepreneurial system. It glorifies the family-owned business - the neighborhood shop - that is increasingly being swallowed by corporate expansion. It recognizes the value in having faith that people will ultimately do the right thing. Near the end, there is a moment where Eddie reminds Calvin of what it means to run a business, to recognize the responsibility one has to the employees as well as the customers. Calvin realizes - and the audience agrees - that places like the barbershop are the backbone of this country. They are places to congregate with friends and family, places where young people can learn from the insights of their elders.

Barbershop is a humble movie; it accomplishes all of the above using humor and warmth instead of heavy-handedness or preachiness. The performances are first-rate, especially the one from Cedric the Entertainer, who is totally convincing in old-age hair and make-up. His performance is from the heart and it deserves an Oscar nomination. Director Tim Story gets the feel of the shop just right and balances a number of different storylines with ease. This is a wonderful feel-good movie. It's one of my favorite pictures of the year.

( 1/2 out of four)

Barbershop is rated PG-13 for language, sexual content and brief drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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