Much has changed in the world since the last time Cedric the Entertainer’s crunchy old barber Eddie was working people’s last good P.C. nerves in Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s Barbershop 2: Back in Business. Back in 2004, a homicidal Republican WASP was serving as POTUS and the South Side Chicago neighborhood housing the movie’s namesake business was in jeopardy of getting gentrified into oblivion. Twelve years later, America’s had two terms to get used to the idea of a black president, and the block where Calvin (Ice Cube) still runs his sartorial enterprise is dodging gangland bullets faster than Calvin’s business partner, Angie (Regina Hall), can sew in a weave.
Though the recent collapse of civic peace in the Windy City would seem to signal a darker, more somber installment of the Barbershop series, the film’s collection of caricatures shall not be moved. If Chi-raq processed the mounting bloodshed as a wild, annotation-filled dissertation, The Next Cut, directed by Spike Lee’s cousin, Malcolm D. Lee, is a pop sonata of stand-up comedy routines layered with, if not vitality, then at least honest energy.
As Calvin explains very early on in the film, he’s Chicago’s biggest cheerleader (which is more than one can say of the production itself, which filmed in Atlanta). But the rise of the teenage revolt at his doorstep hits too close to home with his only son, Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.), now old enough to be in danger of recruitment. Calvin and his merry band of stylists—well, not that merry—spend their work days on constant guard, clipping away and squaring off at the line separating the men’s and women’s halves of the shop, in a neat visual representation of social bifurcation.
And in contrast to Barbershop and Back in Business, where the shop’s banter felt like a spontaneous reflection of camaraderie, in The Next Cut the overlapping zingers and shade ring with the unmistakable metallic flavor of gallows humor. At one point, Eddie is tasked by an angry mother to give a preteen boy a George Jefferson cut as punishment. It’s a moment that in any other context would’ve been a quick visual throwaway, but here carries the added symbolic baggage of an adult community struggling to figure out just how to deal with an out-of-control youth population.
Malcolm D. Lee has proven a remarkably sturdy master of unabashedly populist ensemble comedies. If nothing he’s done since Undercover Brother has quite matched that film’s level of satiric ambition (he’s at the perpetual mercy of his scripts), there’s no small value to what he’s managed to accomplish in the warm, nostalgic glow of Roll Bounce or the reasonably un-clumsy emotional gear shifts in The Best Man Holiday.
While he never goes so far as to resist or subvert the crassly commercial scripts he’s given or choose to work with, Lee’s good enough with his performers to flip stereotypes on the page to familiar archetypes on the screen. The Next Cut certainly doesn’t have all the answers, or any of them; a 48-hour cease fire brokered between two rival gang heads, so that the shop can try to go viral with a hashtag that’s damn near longer than Twitter’s character limit, tests all credibility. But the filmmaker’s skill with large casts clues viewers into the conversation. And in the bargain we now have a long-needed addendum to the Chekhov’s gun trope: If a gun or a Nicki Minaj is introduced in the first act, they must go off by act three.