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movies: A Cut Above

"Car Wash" meets "It's a Wonderful Life" with rollicking results in "BarberShop."

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While there are no such fantastic story turns in "BarberShop," you can't help but think of Capra's holiday classic while watching this very funny and remarkably thoughtful ensemble comedy. Although its feel is retro-'70s, its "no man is an island" message of community and caring is timeless.

Just like George Bailey, "BarberShop's" Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) feels that he's boxed in, trapped as it were by a prearranged destiny. A wannabe music producer who inherits his father's debt-ridden barbershop on a troubled street in Chicago's south side, Calvin balks at being the "hair-apparent."

Though he'd rather be standing behind a mixing board, Calvin spends his days behind a barber's chair, cutting hair instead of cutting demos. He owes it to his family, the bank and the employees to keep the shop going.

Eventually, he'll come to understand that he also owes it to the 40-year-plus legacy of his father. The elder Palmer didn't merely invest money and faith into the community, he gave it a cornerstone and touchstone. By turning his shop into a gathering place for jobless youths, charity cases, gossips, skeptics, lonely souls and militants, Palmer Senior facilitated debate and change under the freewheeling but caring guise of a large, boisterous extended family.

But Ice Cube's Calvin Junior succumbs to his get-rich-quick fantasies and yields to temptation when loan shark Lester (a terrifically flamboyant Keith David) offers him 20-grand for the property. Lester, of course, has no intention of keeping the shop going; he plans to turn the prime location into a strip joint.

Our hero soon recognizes the error of his ways as well as the value of the shop as the heart of the neighborhood. And he frantically works to get it back.

The screenplay (penned by Mark Brown, Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd) is a sly and clever twist on "It's a Wonderful Life" cross-pollinated with the inner-city savvy "Car Wash," with a running gag of a subplot that unabashedly owes more than a passing nod to the classic Oscar-winning Laurel and Hardy short "The Music Box." But instead of a piano, it's a massive ATM being lugged around the neighborhood by the bumbling, supersized smash-and-grab artists JD (a very, very funny Anthony Anderson) and his even dimmer partner-in-crime Billy (Lahmard Tate).

First time feature-film director Tim Story (formerly a video helmer) handles these shifting plots and subplots with ease, while allowing each member of the ensemble cast a priceless moment to shine. In his best performance since "Three Kings," Ice Cube is touching as Calvin. Rapper Eve makes an impressive acting debut as Terri, the only female barber in the shop, as does newcomer Leonard Earl Howze as Dinka, a sweet West African with a big-time crush on Terri.

But it's Cedric the Entertainer who steals the show. He plays retired, veteran barber Eddie, whose politically incorrect takes on African-American figures — from Rosa Parks to O.J. — are the high point of a movie brimming with such surprises. The performances, the dialogue laced with zingers and Story's deft direction keep "BarberShop" from being just another tired jumble of stereotypes exploited for shallow laughs.

Instead, "BarberShop" hums with heart and soul, a smart bit of entertainment that transcends its setting with infectious humor. **** S

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