The Real Trouble With Barbershop: It’s Not Funny Enough

Tim Story’s Barbershop , from a screenplay by Mark Brown, Don D. Scott and Marshall Todd, based on a story by Mr. Brown, has scored a modest crossover success as an African-American-nurtured, Harlem-based entertainment that appeals, if only marginally, to a white audience. Its prospects have been enhanced in recent weeks by the furor raised over the disrespectful remarks of the elderly barber Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) concerning such civil-rights legends as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., along with more legitimately debatable targets like Jesse Jackson, Rodney King and O.J. Simpson. Mr. Jackson insisted in an interview for USA Today that he didn’t object to Eddie’s assaults on him for alleged sexual indiscretions, “but Dr. King is dead, and Ms. Parks is an invalid. There are some heroes who are sacred to people, and these comments poisoned an otherwise funny movie.”

Several columnists-some of them African-American-have rushed to the defense of Barbershop as an exercise in free speech. Of course, defending free speech in the abstract is often a mindless and even hypocritical reflex. Still, there are some related issues I wish to explore. First, I am disturbed to learn that there’s a plan afoot to release VHS and DVD versions of Barbershop with Eddie’s allegedly inflammatory remarks removed. Currently, there’s a DVD of Robert Altman’s Nashville with a slightly edited version of Gwen Welles’ poignantly clumsy striptease. This is the wrong way for DVD’s to go. Instead of subtracting footage presumed to be “offensive,” DVD’s should be adding footage cut out from prudishly and moralistically censored theatrical originals.

Secondly, what is Eddie really saying? Simply this: African-Americans shouldn’t idealize the media-sanctioned stars of the civil-rights movement, but instead should build up their own individual self-esteem, and that of the mass of their brothers and sisters. Though Eddie is shouted down by all the other denizens of the barbershop, his position is much subtler than Mr. Jackson’s diatribe would suggest.

Curiously, James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano echoes Eddie’s sentiments in a much-criticized recent episode of The Sopranos that focused on a disruption by Native Americans of an Italian-American parade in honor of Christopher Columbus. Tony reminds one of his hot-headed henchmen that Columbus lived more than 500 years ago and can never be an adequate substitute for an individual Italian-American’s self-esteem. The essential message is the same in both instances: Be your own hero before looking around for others, and beware the traps lurking in groupspeak and groupthink.

Nonetheless, the internal racial conflict that characterized the Shaft – Superfly period of blaxploitation films in the early 70’s-waged by the Miss Jane Pittman crowd out of concern for the black man’s screen image-does not exactly apply today. In our undeniably racist society, black people can never win. When white and black liberals combined to drive servile blacks from the screen-with the concomitant loss of black acting jobs-Sidney Poitier heroically tried to fill the breach with a series of noble portrayals that made him a running joke among white elitists for his affront to realism and sociological probability. Meanwhile, the chance of African-American directors, producers, writers and actors to carve out a slice of the worldwide global market for those black action movies was lost forever. African-American talents now serve as mercenaries in a white-dominated industry, and are used incessantly in bureaucratic roles while most of the ruggedly individualistic parts go to white hunks. I fought this battle as a critic three decades ago against gifted adversaries like Amiri Baraka, and I lost-and Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger won.

In this context, Barbershop is positive enough, and inoffensive enough, in its image of African-Americans to satisfy appraisers of political correctness. The only trouble with the movie is that it’s not as funny as advertised. Even Cedric the Entertainer does not come close to matching the comic genius of such stand-up performers as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. Instead, Barbershop is cuddly, warm and sentimental in a pleasantly populist manner. Ice Cube plays Calvin Palmer, impecunious heir to his late daddy’s barbershop, which has never been much of a paying proposition because of his daddy’s community spirit: He kept on more barbers than the business needed, and extended credit to customers when times were bad, which was almost always. In return, Calvin’s father got to preside over a kind of poor man’s country club where people could just hang around and socialize. When Calvin ill-advisedly sells the barbershop to a local loan shark, both Eddie and Calvin’s wife Jennifer (Jazsmin Lewis) make him see the light. In a contrived ending, all turns out happily, though unconvincingly so. There are several weak subplots, with failed slapstick antics that hover on the edge of anti-intellectual stereotyping. But the movie’s heart is in the right place, which generates enough warmth to make one root for it.

Sex and Death

Considering Paul Schrader’s previous screen obsessions with self-torture and torment, his Auto Focus , from a screenplay by Michael Gerbosi, adapted from Robert Graysmith’s book The Murder of Bob Crane , suggests that if Bob Crane’s sordid life and death had not actually occurred, Mr. Schrader would have loved to invent them. As it happens, much of the darkest and most obsessive cinema of the past quarter of a century bears Mr. Schrader’s stamp. He was the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), as well as Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1975), Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976) and John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977); he was also the writer and/or director of Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Patty Hearst (1988), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), Light Sleeper (1991) and Affliction (1997). The titles alone evoke Mr. Schrader’s well-known guilt-ridden Calvinist background, challenged at every turn by the valley of temptation called Hollywood.

From the evidence of Auto Focus , Mr. Schrader still seems intent on depicting guilt without redemption, and sin without seductiveness to justify it or remorse to atone for it. The tip-off is the first descent of Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), the new star of the tasteless television series Hogan’s Heroes , into the hell of a strip club. As an erstwhile sinner myself, I can testify that I and my comrades in depravity were always seeking the illusion of a sweet, beautiful innocence corrupted to serve our base carnal needs. In other words, we wanted a knockout of a good-looking girl to take off her clothes with style and panache.

The first stripper that Bob Crane encounters in Mr. Schrader’s film has all the sweetness and innocence of a hardened harlot. This strikes me as a bit of cliché from a filmmaker who wishes to avoid the charge of exploitation: make sin ugly, and-presto!-you become a screen moralist. There is no easy answer to the problem of treating sexual subjects without being charged with crass commercialism. Strangely, as much as viewers may be lured into the theater by the crude come-on, they end up hating themselves enough to take out their inner feelings of shame on the supposedly “artistic” wretch who supplied the come-on.

Curiously, Mr. Kinnear himself is a much more appealing actor than the sleazy Crane ever was, though both had strikingly similar early careers as media masters of ceremony before hitting it big. Indeed, Mr. Schrader and Mr. Gerbosi have reportedly built up Crane’s early Roman Catholic devoutness as the happily married father of three children; he ends up as the twice-divorced father of four. In an embarrassingly sticky scene, a Roman Catholic priest urges Crane to avoid venues of sin like strip clubs, where Crane indulged his early musical fantasies by pounding the drums while watching naked women.

Mr. Schrader and Mr. Gerbosi have also built up the character of John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), the video technician who probably murdered Crane, as the actor’s technological enabler: the man who facilitated and recorded his orgies in the slowly evolving VCR era, from 1965 to Crane’s death in 1978-a period in which voyeuristic devices were making their mark on the public. Crane’s fascination with recording and preserving the spectacles of his own excess is occasionally amusing. Yet everything in the movie rises and falls dismally, with little sense even of waste and loss. It actually happened, I suppose, but that is not enough.

Writer on the Verge

George Hickenlooper’s The Man From Elysian Fields , from a screenplay by Phillip Jayson Lasker, is an ambitious attempt to use the literary life as a metaphor for one man’s Faustian decision to provide for himself and his family by working for a male escort service operated by the devil himself-Mick Jagger’s Luther Fox. Or is the male escort service a metaphor for the compromises a writer must make just to get published, much less to make a living from his writing, and much, much less to get a best-seller out of his efforts? I’m not sure, but Andy Garcia’s Byron Tiller, as a case in point, finds himself between a devil and a hard place when his editor turns down his latest novel because its subject-migrant workers-doesn’t grab him, even as a “microcosm” of something larger. Byron himself throws the word “microcosm” around like a football to conspicuously display his literary credentials.

Byron’s sexy wife, Dena (Julianna Margulies), is the foremost champion of his writing, as well as bringing up his child and supporting the family. When Dena urges Byron to ask her wealthy father for either a job or a loan, Byron doesn’t think much of either idea. But when his former boss at an advertising agency refuses to give him his old job back, and his editor refuses his request for an advance on his next novel, Byron reluctantly approaches his father-in-law for a loan-only to be brusquely denied and, as a parting shot, called a loser.

If you know anything about dramatic writing, you’ll recognize the signs of utter desperation that will soon drive Byron to do something really dreadful or, at the very least, unsympathetic. Enter Luther Fox, who has an office down the hall from Byron’s writing room. Byron has already noticed an extraordinarily well-dressed older man going in and out of the office, with “Elysian Fields”-the name of Luther’s discreet male escort service for wealthy and socially prominent women of a certain age-written on the door.

Actually, Luther “picks up” Byron at a nearby bar, where the desperate writer is trying to drown his sorrows. At first Byron suspects that the service involves a gay clientele, but Luther assures him that the only clients are women, who usually seek social companionship rather than sex. Byron agrees to give the service a try. His first client turns out to be Andrea Allcott (Olivia Williams), the very young and beautiful wife of the aging Tobias Allcott (James Coburn), one of Byron’s literary heroes from his college days onward. At first Andrea is satisfied with mere escorting-but on their second opera date, when she suggests that she might bounce her check if Byron doesn’t take her to the bedroom, Byron reluctantly complies. Tobias thoroughly approves of his wife’s arrangement, and even enlists Byron as his literary collaborator.

Eventually, Byron’s double life unravels his marriage and leaves him without any support after Tobias’ death. He gets a job as a waiter and uses his writing skills to freshen his employer’s menus, before writing a semi-autobiographical book that turns out to be a best-seller and taking the first steps to repair his marriage. Only the charm and attractiveness of the cast keeps this movie from the remainder bin.