It's been ages - perhaps not since "It's a Wonderful Life" - that a film has come along as, dare I say it, wholesome and yet compelling, skillfully contrived and yet with emotional resonance, as Ice Cube's new film "Barbershop." Wittier than "Wonderful Life," it is not a tearjerker; and although realistically it skirts the impossible and unbelievable it has the ring of truth. In a word, it is lovely. Let me use the dread critical word heartwarming to describe "Barbershop".
Bravely, the film is set all in one day - a contrivance that has doomed many another effort by many another filmmaker - but here it surmounts any feeling of overcrowdedness or artifice. The rapper Ice Cube, who made his dazzling debut in John Singleton's 1991 film "Boyz N The Hood," has grown into one of the finest actors working today. He is Calvin Palmer, who inherited his father's barber shop on Chicago's South Side. He's barely surviving financially, and constantly fantasizes about a big score - he'll open a recording studio in his basement, he'll find some way to get out from under the legacy of his family's tradition. His wife Jennifer (Jaszmin Lewis) can't convince him that he should stay where he is. The film's plot, such as it is, revolves around his decision to sell the barbershop to the local gang boss, chop-shop owner and pimp-master Lester Wallace (Keith David), and the lessons he must learn about the implications of that sale.
The barbershop is overrun with friends, hustlers, even a white barber (Troy Garity) whom no black customer will trust to cut hair. Everybody has a story, or at least a shtick, and the film is full of nicely observed moments, such as the one where the West African immigrant (Leonard Earl Howze) gives a birthday card to stylist Terri Jones (Eve), whose message is a poem by Pablo Neruda. And occupying one chair in the shop, though never cutting hair, is Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), who is both politically incorrect - he has a lot to say about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson - and wise enough to be the conscience of the film. There's even a comic subplot with two thieves who've stolen the ATM from a convenience store across the street and can't get it open.
Will Calvin come to realize how important his shop is to the neighborhood? Of course; we know that from the beginning, but the pleasure is in the getting there, and Ice Cube's genius as an actor is to make us believe in everything he sees, hears and feels, every moment of the day. He is without pretension or artifice, and yet he commands the screen. He has the rare quality of being transparent to the camera and to us - the mark of the very best actors - so that we in the audience can see into his character's mind and heart.
I don't want to overpraise this film; the script is overcrowded with incidents and shallow conflicts, and the direction by Tim Story is pedestrian. But compared with the current love affair the box office is having with that compendium of clichés "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," this film is infinitely richer, funnier, and deeper. In a bad year for American films this one could make a lot of ten-best lists.