It was not because they came from Maine that Frank Zappa nicknamed best friends Vinny and Suzette "the Banger sisters." The girls were groupies, the best-laid fans of music men. "Jim Morrison passed out here one night," says Suzette (Hawn), pointing to a spot in a Sunset Strip nightclub, "with me under him." But that was then, more than 20 years ago, and though Suzette is now more voluptuous than ever (thanks to breast implants), she cannot hold her whiskey or her job.

Suzette drives to Phoenix, with vague intentions of extracting cash from Vinny (Sarandon), who has married money and long since cut off contact with reminders of her raunchy past. Along the way she picks up Harry (Rush), an abstemious, suicidal writer — an obsessive-compulsive character who is not only excessive but also superfluous to the plot, since middle-aged Vinny also turns out to have become as uptight as Suzette is spontaneous. "I hate drab," Suzette declares, and proceeds to bring vibrant color to the lives of Harry, Vinny, and Vinny's family. After a night on the town with Suzette, a few tokes of grass, and a peek at her old "rock cock collection" (photos of musicians' natural instruments), Vinny is ready to get on with her life and Harry's prepared to get it on with Suzette.

"Do it true," says Vinny's elder daughter in her high school valediction — and whatever that means, it is the moral of this film, which, while skirting the boundaries of good taste, never lifts the skirts into genuinely hairy regions. What salvages The Banger Sisters from tired piety disguised as ribaldry is the pleasure of watching Hawn and Sarandon do battle against both each other and the script.

Barbershop "Raises expectations for black urban comedies"
Dir. Tim Story; writ. Mark Brown; feat. Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, Sean Patrick Thomas, Troy Garity, Michael Ely (PG-13)

The black-produced and -directed Barbershop distances itself from most black comedies, such as the recent blaxploitation homage Undercover Brother, by presenting nuanced characters instead of stereotypes to be dissected. In this sense, the film — which depicts a day in the life of an inner-city Chicago barbershop — has more in common with black dramas like Soul Food or The Wood than the pot farce Friday or the slew of direct-to-video gangsta flicks.

The film focuses on Calvin (Ice Cube), a young black man struggling to keep open the inner city barbershop he inherited from his father. In an effort to break away from the failing barber shop, Calvin accepts a buyout from a local loan shark. As the day progresses, though, he realizes his mistake, recognizing the importance of the barbershop as a space that in its own small way helps to maintain hope and community for folks in the inner city.

Director Tim Story handles his first studio-backed film well. Employing a strong cast that balances established stars with young talents, Barbershop consistently maintains a balance between humor and drama. The hijinks of JD (the very funny Anthony Anderson) trying to figure out to do with a stolen, and very unwieldy, ATM machine will keep audiences laughing, as will much of the refreshingly politically incorrect banter that takes place in the shop. In addition to providing one-liners, the setting demonstrates the social importance to the black community of spaces like these. They might be forums for gossip or trashtalking, but they're also gathering places in which politics and history are as likely to be discussed as ratios for the perfect ass size.

While this day-in-the-life drama generally succeeds in balancing comedy and humor, the generally well-executed script fails toward the end of the movie, with a sentimental and too-pat resolution. Nevertheless, with its solid direction and strong performances, Barbershop is a subtle advance in our cultural representations of young working-class black men and some of the struggles they face.


A Scene from Mostly Martha.
Mostly Martha (Bella Martha)
"Cinematic comfort food"

Writ. & dir. Sandra Nettelbeck; feat. Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Sergio Castellito, August Zirner, Sibylle Canonica (PG)

The Martha about whom Sandra Nettelbeck's German film is mostly about is head chef at a gastronomically ambitious restaurant in Hamburg, and she demands perfection from herself and her staff. Though Frida (Canonica) is the owner, Martha is its monarch, yet all that Frida has to do to make Martha blaze up like a burner in the kitchen is refer to her as the city's second best chef. Martha is an artist of the appetite who feels she is wasting her truffles on diners who cannot distinguish between exquisite fungus and athlete's foot. When a customer complains that the foie gras is undercooked, Martha pounces on the boor.

Martha's tidy world is challenged by two intrusions: Mario (Castellito), an insouciant sous-chef from Italy, and Lina (Foerste), Martha's 8-year-old niece. Mario enables the film to play on familiar North-South stereotypes — stern German vs. bon vivant Italian. When Martha's sister dies, Lina comes to live with her aunt, who discovers that a child is more challenging than even a souffle. "I wish I had a recipe for you that I could follow," says Martha to Lina, revealing the recipe for the script. Beyond the repetitious shots of chopping, slicing, and dicing, this is the story of a woman who learns to step out of the kitchen, loosen up, and love. Mostly Martha adds nothing to our knowledge of the culinary life not already examined in the larder of current foodie books and in such other cuisine art films as Big Night, Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate. It offers comfort food, with little left to chew on.

Stealing Harvard
"All heart, no brains"
Dir. Bruce McCulloch; writ. Martin Hynes, Peter Tolan; feat. Jason Lee, Tom Green, Leslie Mann, Dennis Farina, John C. McGinley, Chris Penn, Tammy Blanchard (PG-13)

In this philanthropic caper flick, John Plummer (Lee) enlists his friend Duff (Green) to help burgle 30,000 smackers so John can fulfill a long-forgotten promise to pay for his niece's college.

A year ago, withered by films like Drowning Mona and Ready to Rumble, I lamented the meanness of modern comedy, and wished that filmmakers would learn from the Farrelly brothers to keep a good heart and lighten up. This summer's Pluto Nash and Stealing Harvard suggest that the pendulum has swung.

Too bad both these movies kinda suck. But at least I don't feel grimy watching them.

Jason Lee should get a gig with the Farrellys, who could also put the odd-faced John C. McGinley to good use. Tom Green has yet to make me laugh, and Bruce McCulloch (Kids in the Hall) lets Green try way too hard. But hey, there are a couple of good gags, and McGinley gets to say, "Don't ever play me like a flute."

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