Barbershop is one of those rare, thoroughly realized comedic films that contains such concise inventions of story, character and milieu that it begs to be serialized into a television situation comedy. Music-video director Tim Story's studio-backed feature debut shows equal promise for his expressive ability with multiple characters and delicate shifts in tone from comedy to drama with light touches of social commentary. (Better to catch this original comedy before television writers turn it into the mediocre weekly pulp they're famous for delivering.)
In cold South Side Chicago, Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube -- Boyz in the Hood, Three Kings) dreams of building a recording studio in his basement when he isn't spending time with his pregnant wife Janelle (Sonya Eddy) or working overtime at his inherited barbershop. Calvin grapples with selling off his father's business to Lester (Keith David), a loan shark, as mounting bills threaten doom for the shop even though it serves as a vibrant social hub for the community.
As the film opens, a couple of moronic hoods steal an ATM machine from an Indian-owned bodega across the street from Calvin's barbershop. The fact that the thieves don't have a clue about cracking into the mini bank vault once they have it doesn't stop them from dragging the heavy box around to various locations over the course of the story like a favorite ball and chain. The bumbling criminals serve as slapstick comic relief from Calvin's misguided dalliance with unloading his father's well-established business, and with it his civic obligation to the haircutters and clients he provides with a home away from home.
Barbershop is like a mini Robert Altman movie that's more about the spirit of a place and the way its inhabitants communicate and connect than it is about plot. Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) is the grand mentor of the shop, having worked there for many years. He rarely gives haircuts but metes out nuggets of advice and snippets of history that frequently don't jibe with widely accepted attitudes.
Then there's Jimmy James (Sean Patrick Thomas), a cocky college graduate barber who taunts Isaac (Troy Garity) with a feigned superiority complex because he resents Isaac, a white kid raised in the hood, trying to build a future by cutting hair. But it's the mild-tempered Calvin who conducts the barbershop of misfits that include Terri (rap star Eve), a fiery-tempered woman barber, Ricky (Michael Ealy), an ex-con, and Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), a chubby Nigerian barber in love with Terri and not afraid to defend her.
The spicy dynamism of Barbershop's colorful urban characters is spun with a syncopated rhythm and pace that augments the compassionate intent and facetiousness at the core of the story. The setting of urban Chicago dramatizes the movie with a communal charm that is consistent with the city's benevolent place in other Chicago-based films such as High Fidelity and The Blues Brothers.