That's Life 

Culture clash makes somber comedy in powerful Late Marriage, plus the cut-above cutup Barbershop.

If the sneakily accomplished, devastatingly realized Israeli "comedy" Late Marriage is the third in an accidental trilogy of "ethnic" wedding films to grace local screens this year, it is most remarkable for its differences from the other two. If the word-of-mouth sensation My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a feel-good synthesis of the pressures of cultural tradition and a younger generation's inherent need to break free from those pressures, then Late Marriage is a "feel bad" film about the failure to find the same kind of compatibility between those competing tensions. And where the Indian should-have-been-a-word-of-mouth-sensation Monsoon Wedding arrived at a grudgingly accepting view of arranged marriage, Late Marriage offers a fairly damning portrait of the practice.

Set amid a Tel Aviv community of emigrants from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia that writer/director Dover Kosashvili is himself from, Late Marriage centers on Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi), a 31-year-old graduate student who, much to his parents' chagrin, has not married, despite the fact that his parents have set up possibly hundreds of meetings with potential brides.

The film is tightly structured as a series of set pieces, with three primary parts and a coda. And individual scenes are frequently long takes filmed in static medium shots, giving the film a detached, analytical feel.

The film's first section is a bit of a red herring, though one whose purpose becomes clear later on. Zaza is taken by his parents and another pair of older relatives to meet yet another prospective bride, a beautiful and strikingly self-possessed 17-year-old named Ilana (Aya Stenovits Laor). The girl is bored and droll and sharp-witted, and she and Zaza spar gently and make out absentmindedly while sent to her room to "get to know one another," though it's clear that neither Ilana nor Zaza is all that interested in the prospect of a marriage that his father and her uncle are discussing in the living room as if negotiating the purchase of a household appliance ("I'll take her," the father announces).

Most viewers are likely to assume that the film will be about the arranged courtship of Zaza and Ilana, but Ilana is never seen again. The scene merely gives a glimpse of the process that Zaza's parents have been dragging him through for years and hints at their increasing weariness and concern that their son is so old yet has not done the honorable thing and taken an appropriate wife.

In the film's next section, we find out why Zaza has been holding out: He's in love with Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), a 34-year-old divorcée with a grade-school-aged daughter. Zaza has been with this woman for years but refuses to reveal the relationship to his parents, who he thinks would never accept his marrying a divorced older woman. Much of this middle third of the film is taken up by one uninterrupted bedroom scene between Judith and Zaza. Centered around a candid, earthy bout of lovemaking and bracketed by moments of pre- and postcoital conversation, this is a scene in which nothing yet everything happens. Played with thrilling naturalism by Ashkenazi and Elkabetz, the scene gives a sense of the deep familiarity and affection that exist between Zaza and Judith, of a relationship grounded in shared history and mutual interest. It contrasts sharply with both the disinterested dalliance between Zaza and Ilana and with the drab relationship that exists between Zaza's parents, themselves products of an arranged marriage.

In the film's third section, Zaza's parents discover the illicit relationship, camping out -- along with several other family members of their own generation -- in the parking lot of Judith's apartment building in hopes of exposing the couple. The set piece of this section is a horrifying, harrowing intervention scene in which Zaza's (extended) family invades Judith's apartment and terrorizes the couple, the brutal frankness and physical intimidation by Zaza's parents coming as a shock even after their feelings have been made apparent.

Zaza refuses to stand up to his mother, never noticing a sense of respect she develops for Judith that may be a crack in her obstinacy. Judith, taking note of Zaza's reaction, ends the relationship, despite Zaza's willingness to continue the affair under the previous clandestine conditions. From there, the film flashes forward with a brief, bleak coda that seems to be an equal condemnation of Zaza's family's insistence on a "proper" arranged marriage and Zaza's own refusal to confront and defy their wishes -- with the sense of comfort and ease in the centerpiece scene between Zaza and Judith lingering, a throbbing pain of regret that haunts the powerfully awkward finale.

In Hebrew and Georgian with English subtitles.

On the surface, Barbershop is everything you might expect: hackneyed, slight, obvious. But it also is imbued with a generosity of spirit that lifts it above its cinematic station.

From the opening montage of black-and-white photographs (with the words "black-owned" printed on one storefront window that scrolls by without any special attention) to the closing-credits blare of the Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There," the film aches with nostalgia. The discourse at work here, which was also explored -- more directly but also more as an aside -- in John Sayles' recent Sunshine State, is that the civil rights movement had an unintended effect: The racial integration and assimilation that victory brought also wreaked havoc with black self-sufficiency. With the bad old days and good old days beginning to blur, Barbershop looks back at a sense of community it perceives to be in peril.

Barbershop takes place over the course of a single day, and the film moves along two parallel tracks. One plot line concerns perpetual planner Calvin's (hip-hop icon Ice Cube) sale of the South Side Chicago barbershop he inherited from his father to a local loan shark (Keith David in full-on Mack mode). But after envisioning the neighborhood institution his father spent 40 years developing turned into a barbershop-themed strip club, Calvin has second thoughts and tries to return the loan shark's money only to find a demand of 100 percent interest.

The other plot line follows the inept attempts by a Laurel-and-Hardyish pair of local "thugs," JD (Anthony Anderson, the round mound of rebound who once made perhaps the most unlikely athlete ever in the Saturday-morning hoops sitcom Hang Time) and Billy (Lahmard Tate), to open an ATM machine they stole the night before from an Indian-owned convenience store across the street from the barbershop.

These two narratives come together at the end in about as believable and rewarding a way as you could expect (not very) but are mostly distractions, and calculated ones at that, serving complementary functions: the former to give the film an air of redeeming seriousness, the latter to provide some broad slapstick. But the real core of the film, and the reason why anyone would want to see it, is what takes place between these two devices -- the barbershop scenes.

If the filmmakers weren't so constrained by the narrative necessity of commercial movie-making, they could have just filmed a two-hour movie of barbershop bonhomie (a subject dying for a good documentary) and been better off for it.

Calvin's barbershop, as one character explains, is a cornerstone of the neighborhood, "our own country club." It's a place to hang out, discuss the issues of the day, hurl playful insults, and speak words otherwise left unsaid because, as the same character later explains, "ain't nobody exempt in a barbershop."

Director Tim Story and writer Mark Brown have assembled a colorful cast of characters and performers to people this very stage-y central location. Ice Cube, though great in previous roles (especially as the hollow-eyed Doughboy in the otherwise too after-school-specialish Boyz In the Hood and Chief Elgin in the Gulf War-themed Three Kings), plays the straight man, offering solid support to a group of flashier performers. Fellow hip-hop star Eve plays the shop's only female cutter, Terri, a tough girl who is an object of infatuation for colleague Dinka (Leonard Howze), a gentle West African immigrant proud of a job he rightfully considers skilled craftsmanship. Dinka receives courtship advice from Ricky (the charismatic Michael Ealy), a two-time felon trying to go straight who trades barbs with the well-educated-and-making-sure-everyone-knows-it Jimmy James (Sean Patrick Thomas, with a less kind spin on the role he played in Save the Last Dance). Meanwhile, Jimmy James spends the day chastising the shop's newest cutter, hip-hop-loving white boy Isaac Rosenberg (Troy Garity), whom he perceives as a poseur. Looking over the crew is longtime barber Eddie (The Original Kings Of Comedy's Cedric the Entertainer, with his graying hair implying at least 20 years on the actor's actual age), who spends the day expounding on every subject that comes up, which is easy when you don't have any customers but do have one longtime regular ("Checkers Fred") who sits in the corner cheering you on all day.

Eddie is the focal point of these scenes, a likable old loudmouth who is prone to begin stories with "In my day " and who worked his chair through all of the crucial city events of his generation --the riots in '68, desegregation and busing in '74, Walter Payton's 275-yard game against the Vikings in '77. Eddie begins one screed with the young-folks-baiting "Black people need to stop lying" then slaughters a series of sacred cows -- Rodney King, O.J., Rosa Parks -- before sending his co-workers into convulsions of outraged laughter with the ultimate dis: "Look, fuck Jesse Jackson. Jesse Randy, Tito, Action, all those Jacksons."

Cedric the Entertainer's Eddie is a blast when he lays back and eggs on his younger cohorts ("Knock his college ass out!" he yells when Ricky and Jimmy James nearly come to blows) or spouts malapropisms ("Welfare and affirmative action: Is that not respirations?" he asks during one serious discussion), but the film loses steam when Story and Brown force him to become the preachy voice of wisdom.

Barbershop is at its best when it doesn't try so hard, when it allows the audience to slip into the daily rhythms of work and conversation at the shop: a debate over the crucial distinction between a "woman with a big ass" and a "big-ass woman"; a hand-scrawled cardboard sign that reads "No rap music before 10 a.m.," the arrival of that hour marked by one cutter dropping an EPMD cassette into the stereo and blasting the classic single "You Gots To Chill"; a simple shaving lesson from Eddie that gets his younger colleagues to settle down and pay attention for a few minutes.

Barbershop's barbershop is a great place to hang out. If we have to put up with the film's predictable plot trappings in order to do so, it's well worth it.

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