Barbershop: The Next Cut is less a franchise close-out, and more a movie that sits a cut above its predecessors, admirable for its tenacity. Ice Cube’s series is back with all the relevance and razor-edged wit of a 20-like tweet, and somehow, that’s not the worst thing. There are loose-lipped lectures on Chicago’s gun violence, Obama’s ears, gender battles, and the constantly scrutinized troubles of black American celebrities in this well-meaning if not unwieldy dramedy; a fat-chewing Jeffersons episode, a silly yet socially-minded comedy.
Cube reprises his role as Calvin, the proprietor of his own barbershop on the South side of Chicago. Calvin’s a proud South Sider, as he announces during the opening credits. (The credits also include Giordano’s, skyscrapers, and the Cubs, a North side team…)
Calvin’s a small business owner in one of the country’s more embattled cities. In 2002, Barbershop addressed neighborhood crime in a more general, vaguely exploitative way. Now, the stakes feel realistic. The Next Cut candidly (though again, generally) addresses gun, gang, and police problems through conversations at the old barbershop. The Next Cut is basically a town hall meeting where Calvin and the shop’s hair maestros and regulars tackle any and all topics, from morbid to malarkey.
The conversation is key. Debates rage between Cube and others about government and City Hall assistance versus community action, as everyone asks who’s responsible. Sexual politics and double standards today are nervily pored over. Nothing’s off limits here, as one patron even swears R. Kelly was robbed of great R&B albums over the last decade by being sweated in the press for perversion. It’s questionably funny, but the film’s bigger idea is that it’s okay to ask those questions. Calvin’s place isn’t free of consequence, but the forum’s certainly open. Some firesides work better than others, depending on the cadence. However, the drama is always in the dialogue. Malcolm D. Lee (cousin of Spike) lets it all play out as writers Kenya Barris (a TV vet) and Tracy Oliver (a relative newcomer) draft spirited prose that runs from vaudeville to sermon. Ultimately the vibe’s inviting, but willing to push, with the subtext always rooted in not being afraid to walk away from the tougher things.
That staff, by the way, consists of a variety of series holdovers and a few notable new faces. Cedric the Entertainer returns as Eddie, the shop’s resident poobah. Eve reprises her demure Terri, and a still-verbose Anthony Anderson is back as J.D., a onetime petty criminal who aims to make good with a convict-driven food service. New Girl’s Lamorne Morris is a backpacker who deals in perfectly neurotic social media humor. Among the other fresh faces, comic J.B Smoove, Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Nicki Minaj get riffy, jovial screentime. And Common is Rashad, Cal’s best friend and the film’s needed ambassador from the actual city of Chicago, given that The Next Cut was actually filmed in Georgia. New to the series, Common finds a slick balance of star charisma (his comic timing’s on a dime) and sincere addresses of the hard stuff. He speaks on his son and gangs, and draws genuine attention.
Eventually, a bigger plan evolves where Calvin’s shop offers free haircuts to the neighborhood under the auspices of a 48-hour peace treaty, and the results are about as optimistic and corny as one might expect, but The Next Cut excels at making tough conversations casual; Cube and company seem to think the most important thing is to actually acknowledge violence, to not ignore death tolls, and in its way The Next Cut becomes an unexpected advocate for discourse. Sure, there are laughs, cheap and proud alike, but this is a threequel with a stealth conscience.
The Next Cut functions as a series of moments built around curious characters. It’s a loose film made of little arguments and loose hangouts. Any sequel obligations don’t seem to matter, because the film acts as a vehicle for open discussion. The Chicago depicted may not be a geographically legitimate one, but it’s a microcosm of larger ideas, and it works well by the end. While the mood can get rambunctious or sentimental, The Next Cut does actually get at difficult points. it has something to say that might actually be worth listening in on.
To watch Malcolm D. Lee’s film debut just months after Spike Lee’s fiery Chi-Raq is a fascinating study in approach. Spike’s film is deft and more artful, but D. Lee’s chummy alternate route works in its own way. The two films illustrate how different visions can articulate and reflect the exact same issues. The Next Cut and Chi-Raq deal in the same problems, and the same calls for hope.