It feels like a bit of a cheat to say that "Barbershop: The Next Cut" is clearly the best of the series. The current filmmakers had the two previous films (and a short-lived TV show and spinoff movie) to study and grow from, and the new film amplifies those films' positive qualities even while suffering from essentially the same drawbacks. Regardless, "The Next Cut" manages to be entertaining and thoughtful, harmless fun but just serious enough not to seem frivolous.
Returning producers Robert Teitel and George L. Tillman Jr. have this time out brought on writers Kenya Barris ("black-ish") and Tracy Oliver ("Survivor's Remorse") and director Malcolm D. Lee ("The Best Man"). The movie juggles so many characters and story lines that it often feels like an extended television pilot, place-setting for future episodes.
The "Barbershop" movies have all been rooted essentially in talk, as the basic premise is the easygoing atmosphere of a neighborhood barbershop and the friendly banter and off-handed wisdom that is dispensed there. As with the previous films, it is at its weakest when it becomes mired in plot rather than savoring the free flow of just hanging out. Yet at a time when so many franchises exist in the cocoon of self-contained universes to evade the real-world implications of their stories — hence the endless images of large-scale urban destruction — the "Barbershop" films at least make the effort to grapple with a world the rest of us might recognize too.
This new film explicitly takes on a contemporary urban blight as shop owner Calvin (Ice Cube) is becoming increasingly troubled by the gun violence plaguing his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He is especially worried that his teenage son may be about to join a gang, so Calvin encourages a weekend cease fire between the gangs in exchange for free haircuts and extended community get-togethers at his shop. All three "Barbershop" films have been rooted in Calvin's ambivalence in taking over his father's business, and this time he contemplates selling for a new location in a different neighborhood.
Barris is the creator of the TV show "black-ish," and his sensibility, a mix of the silly and the serious, meshes well with the world of "Barbershop." The same goes for Oliver, whose credits include the Web series "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," and likewise for Lee, whose previous work includes the hit ensemble "Best Man" films and the satirical comedy "Undercover Brother." The trio are a rather inspired choice to apply their talents to the sincerity and self-awareness of the "Barbershop" universe.
The movie also catches its star Ice Cube at a particularly pivotal moment, riding high off the recent success of "Straight Outta Compton," which portrayed the story of the rap group that first launched him to stardom. Though he has ridden that incongruity for some time, there is a fresh tension in seeing one of the writers of "F— tha Police" now admonishing others not to curse and to dress conservatively. Cube portrays parenting and mature adulthood as a constant balancing act of priorities and responsibilities.
The cast is such a deep bench of talent that a number of performers, at times even Ice Cube himself, can be lost in the shuffle. Costar Deon Cole of "black-ish," "The New Girl" cast member Lamorne Morris, musicians Common, Tyga and Nicki Minaj, and actors Gina Hall and J.B. Smoove all join the cast for the first time, alongside returning performers such as Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, Anthony Anderson, Troy Garity and Sean Patrick Thomas.
The film is overstuffed with cultural references, from jokes on Obama or Beyoncé to Black Lives Matter, the phrase "on fleek" and a poster for the seminal Chicago high school basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams." While many land and give the film a certain spark, there is also a disconcerting number of variations of the phrase "trending on Twitter" that comes to feel like someone anxiously trying a little too hard to show how hip they are.
The film does not have the edge of anger that coursed through "Chi-Raq," the recent film also on Chicago gun violence by Lee's cousin, Spike Lee. What the two films do share is a sense of incomprehension, an inability to process how this became the world. But rather than impish satire, "The Next Cut" responds with a resigned feeling of commitment to simply continue, to press on.
Coming 12 years after the second film, "Barbershop: The Next Cut" may be a movie few were exactly clamoring for or expecting. Even as it does plug into the current cultural moment, this is not a great piece of filmmaking, but it's good enough in a way that feels pleasant and even comforting. By being engaging but not too pointed, topical without being particularly provocative, the film is a sharply executed version of the warm and amiable movie it sets out to be.
"Barbershop: The Next Cut" somehow overachieves, a movie that fulfills its own modest goals in a big way.
'Barbershop: The Next Cut'
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for sexual material and language
Playing: In wide release