You'll often hear me and just about every other film critic in the movie industry whine about the current state of affairs in Hollywood about how mainstream movies (in this case, comedies) are becoming less and less fun to watch as they descend into tried-and-not-so-true formulas, recycled jokes, too many gags revolving around bodily fluids, and plenty of dumb physical gags. Then it might appear that we're the biggest hypocrites in the world, giving movies with similar physical gags high ratings. So do you want to know what all the bad mainstream comedies these days are missing? Honesty. We believed in Bialystock and Bloom in "The Producers", which is why them getting into so many strange messes was as funny as it was. Woody Allen's best films are when the characters are as down-to-earth as Woody Allen characters can be. And in "Barbershop", the key ingredient to its success comes from the fact that it has respect for its characters and their pasts, and instead of going completely goofy, it trusts its characters' personalities to generate the laughs.
Calvin (Ice Cube) is the owner of a Barbershop that has been in his family for ages. He has regulars that have been going there since before he was born; and other barbers who have made their living from that one shop (such as Eddie, played by Cedric the Entertainer). The thing is, Calvin feels he needs a change. He wants to try and become a DJ, even though he can't keep his equipment from constantly bursting into flames. Without thinking about what the shop means to so many people, he makes a deal to sell it to the sleazy "businessman" Lester Wallace (Keith David). He soon realizes his mistake, and needs to get double the money he received for the shop by the end of the day or else he loses the shop forever.
All of this extraneous plot functions only to keep the film moving. When the film is moving along trying to get through the story, it is at it's weakest. Try, for example, one plot line that completely fails: of two amateur thieves who rob a convenience store of its brand new ATM. Any time those two clowns appear on screen, the film stops short. It is certainly not funny or entertaining in the least to see two criminals who stink at that self appointed profession try too hard to get a laugh. In fact, the harder they try, the less funny it gets.
The real heart of the film is inside Calvin's Barbershop, when the film has nothing else to do but let its characters talk. These conversations are sometimes hilarious, sometimes sweet, always entertaining, and never politically correct. There has actually been some controversy over some of the things that have been said in some of these scenes, which I am sure you are probably aware of, in which Jesse Jackson asked the filmmakers to cut a scene where Eddie makes fun of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. The filmmakers have already made their case that this character, Eddie, is clearly off his rocker, and everyone else in the scene thinks so and renounces what he says. This is all true, but it is this kind of free-thinking, stream-of-consciousness chatting that gives the film its edge; "Barbershop" proudly showcases all of the kind of talk that one could only say in private, and it is this that is funnier than any traditional set-up/punchline gag that the film can provide.
Notice, also, how the barbershop itself is not just a location for an ensemble cast to convene, but a source of respect and strength within the community. One moment in particular illustrates how much the barbershop means to everyone: when one barber does a particularly shabby job with one customer, Eddie comes over to him, gets out his special razor, and shows everyone how it's really done. The entire room is silent as he describes the proper way to give a good shave. This is not nearly as superficial as it sounds, and the film never treats it as such, but gives the profession, and the characters, the respect they deserve. It's nice to see a comedy that finally has confidence in and looks up to its characters instead of treating them as expenditures in a joke.