There are two basic kinds of movie sequels. Type one, by far the more common, has little if any creative impetus, existing only to capitalize on the box-office success of its predecessor. Type two, which is all too rare, takes advantage of having established characters and situations to spread out in new, unexpected directions.
Barbershop 2: Back in Business is a sort of hybrid of the two types. It expands the world of the barbershop, taking us deeper into the personal lives of each character and giving a richer exploration of their surroundings. Sadly, though, these welcome grace notes are wrapped around a plot that is too much a retread of the first film. This time the threat to Calvin’s shop isn’t an unscrupulous loan shark; it’s an unscrupulous developer who wants to buy out local business owners so he can gentrify the neighborhood, filling it with chain stores. What’s particularly worrying to Calvin is that one of those stores is Nappy Cutz, an upscale chain of African-American hair salons, which he’s opening directly across the street from Calvin Jr.’s Barbershop.
Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who replaced original helmer Tim Story, says in his commentary that he felt the gentrification storyline was more realistic and timely than the loan shark plot, and I guess he’s right. The problem is that it’s a storyline that’s been done to death. The unscrupulous developer has become a stock figure in contemporary film and television, as common as these stories about mom-and-pop businesses threatened by competition from huge chains. Which is not to say it’s not a valid topic for a film — anything that is such a prevalent and troubling aspect of contemporary society should be a popular subject for filmmakers. But it needs a new spin, not the by-the-numbers plot we get in Barbershop 2.
Sullivan brings an artier sensibility to the film, using more location shooting and incorporating jump-cuts, crane and helicopter shots, and shaky, handheld camera work. The new approach gives the sequel a different tone, more immediate and firmly rooted in the day-to-day reality of life in the neighborhood. Perhaps it’s this focus on the local that led to less exploration of the larger issues of race, class, and gender that were such a strength in the first film.
The entire ensemble has returned, a blessing for any sequel, but particularly so with this cast (For the record, we’re talking about Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Sean Patrick Thomas, Eve, Troy Garity, Michael Ealy, Leonard Earl Howze, and Jazsmin Lewis. They all give excellent performances here, but I’d be lying if I said Eve hadn’t earned a special place in my heart.)
These actors work extraordinarily well together, and both their affection and their rivalries come across as genuine. The scenes showcasing the group interplay are the best part of the movie, though the explorations of their lives outside the shop are welcome, giving us a chance to see how each character has grown since the first film. The one exception is the subplot, told mostly through flashbacks, about Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) and his long-lost love Loretta (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon). It’s a sweet story, and it’s told with humor, but it feels tacked-on, unlike Eddie’s flashbacks introducing his relationship with Calvin, Sr. (Javon Jackson), which are some of the most affecting scenes in the movie.
The filmmakers have made some inspired additions to the ensemble, including Queen Latifah as Gina, the proprietor of the salon next door. Of course she’s introduced largely to set up her spin-off, Beauty Shop , but who cares? I’ll sit through genuine crap like Bringing Down the House to see Queen Latifah. She’s riotous here, particularly in her face-off with Eddie at the barbecue, and the interplay between her and the other women in the beauty shop is a welcome counterpoint to the man-talk going on next door.
Another welcome addition is Robert Wisdom as Alderman Laylow Brown. Wisdom is a brilliant improviser and adeptly gives Brown the insincere, smarmy charm of a fat-cat local politician. Kenan Thompson joins the cast as Kenard, the newest, most obnoxious, and least competent barber in the shop. Kenard epitomizes callow, overconfident youth, and in some ways takes the place of Sean Patrick Thomas’s Jimmy as the one jerk everyone in the shop can agree to dislike (Jimmy’s still around; he’s just mellowed enough that he’s not constantly getting on everyone’s nerves). Eddie’s instant aversion to Kenard leads to some of the film’s funniest moments.
While many of the same elements that worked in the original work just as well here, there aren’t quite as many laughs, and some of the depth has gone. Another problem is that once again Ice Cube’s Calvin is deeply entangled in plot mechanisms that reduce his time interacting with the other barbers. If there is a Barbershop 3 (and I wouldn’t object), it would be nice to see less plot and more character development. The audience returned for this film because these are characters we care about and enjoy spending time with. The plot is a secondary concern for us — and should be for the filmmakers.
Despite its flaws, Barbershop 2 is worth seeing just for the trenchant social commentary of its opening credits, which juxtapose photographs of black and white America over the past 40 years, showing how much white culture has stolen and yet how black Americans have compromised themselves in order to be more acceptable to those who have exploited them and appropriated their culture. It’s too bad more of this pointed scrutiny didn’t make it into the script.
The disc is generous with special features. There are six deleted scenes, which you can watch with introductions from cast members or with commentary from the director. The scenes were cut for time, certainly not because they weren’t entertaining. There are laughs here as big as any found in the finished movie, as well as adding some interesting background. For more laughs, check out the outtakes, which, thankfully, include more than just flubbed lines, showing more of the brilliant improvisation that was left on the cutting-room floor.
There are two commentary tracks, the first from cast members Cedric the Entertainer, Troy Garity, Jazsmin Lewis, and Sean Patrick Thomas that includes a video component. They offer some mildly interesting minutia and affectionate shout-outs to some of the minor players in the film, but too often they do little more than describe what’s on screen. The other commentary track, from director Kevin Rodney Sullivan and producers Robert Teitel and George Tillman, Jr., is more informative, though not essential.
Other extras include the theatrical trailer and a teaser for Beauty Shop, as well as a still photo gallery and the videos “Not Today” by Mary J. Blige featuring Eve and “I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown featuring Outkast. In short, there’s enough here to satisfy the most ardent fan, plus eight other trailers for those looking to kill a little more time.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Barbershop 2: Back in Business / Jeremy Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()