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MOVIE REVIEW

'Barbershop 2' is a cut below the original

The best thing about "Barbershop 2: Back in Business" is also the best thing about "Barbershop": the social commentary. There's a lot near the start, when the same cavalcade of barbers in the same South Side Chicago shop argue about multiracial stars. "What about Vin Diesel?" somebody asks. "Oh, he's half car," says Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), whose hair still looks as if it leapt off Frederick Douglass's head and joined George Clinton's touring crew.

Eddie is still supplying the movie's irreverent punch lines, and there's a new one at least every 20 seconds, until, of course, there isn't. The movie's jokeless interludes stretch a crowd-pleasing comedy into tedium.

Most of the meandering also features Cedric the Entertainer, who was a shot in the arm to the 2002 original and is more like a thorn in its sequel's side, especially in the countless flashbacks to his character's late-1960s salad years. We find out how tubby young Eddie landed his job at Calvin's barbershop. We learn about his love affair with a beautiful woman (Garcelle Beauvais) and that he used to sing a cappella on the el. One thing, however, has very little to do with the other; these tangents are just meant to lavish us with more Cedric, who's much more entertaining in his beer ads than in these flashbacks.

But because they touch on grave cultural touchstones like the rioting after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and double-knit polyester pants, the trips back in time are meant to ground the movie in a specific sense of history. They just tack more time onto a movie that at 115 minutes is too long to begin with.

But "Barbershop 2" has a lot to do. For one thing, its barbers still have issues with one another. Terry (Eve) is trying to tame her anger, while berating Ricky (Michael Ealy) for being a player. Ricky has an education secret that pushes the movie into the public service announcement territory. He's also jealous of the outrageous popularity of Ike (Troy Garity), the shop's white barber, who actually calls himself "Slim Fadey."

Amid all the squabbling and trips to yesteryear, Calvin (Ice Cube) has to save his father's shop -- again. This time from a land developer (Harry Lennix) who, with the help of a flashy alderman, is erecting a barbershop franchise called Nappy Cutz across the street. It's billed as the black Supercuts, but when Calvin and his fellow barbers break in, the place actually looks like a discarded set from Ice Cube's stripper melodrama "The Players Club."

The movie also has to make room for Queen Latifah, who's here to plug her upcoming "Barbershop" spinoff, the economically named "Beauty Shop." So when this movie's not cutting away to flat asides in her salon, Latifah's Gina is barging into scenes to spar with Eddie and flirt with Calvin. Finally seeing Latifah and Cube together on screen is the rap equivalent of having to wait all those years to catch Streep and Pacino together in "Angels in America." "Barbershop 2" is decidedly the lesser event.

The original's strong suit was hardly the intricacy of its plotting or the sophistication of its directing. But it was a rare good movie made with insight and love by black people for black people -- although hardly exclusively for them.

This sequel is overstaffed with a cast that's underserved by Don D. Scott's schematic script and Kevin Rodney Sullivan's crude direction. "Barbershop 2" still takes a dedicated and true snapshot of African-American life. But so little of its presentation is memorable. This is a haircut movie that redefines "fade."

("Barbershop 2: Back in Business": **)

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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