As Gina, the tough-talking stylist at the center of Beauty Shop, Queen Latifah slips comfortably into what easily is her best role since Chicago.
Those who suffered through her making out with Steve Martin in Bringing Down the House or jibing with Jimmy Fallon in the awful Taxi understand that statement’s relative value.
Latifah is far more capable of exploiting her Hollywood-unconventional beauty, charm and chops than she usually does. And it’s sad to see her yet again settle into something sub-par with Beauty Shop, a spin-off of the Barbershop films featuring Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer.
Despite good intentions and a few dollars in late fees, I never saw Barbershop 2: Back in Business, the sequel in which Gina was introduced as a sassy neighbor to the Chicago boys’ club. So it’s possible that the observational humor, well-drawn supporting characters and comfortable-shoe charm of the original Barbershop were trimmed from that film.
They’re practically shaved clean in Beauty Shop. Because the camera observes numerous big-bootied women, a fine man whose “man bag” accessorizing might make him gay or Alicia Silverstone’s terminally white dancing doesn’t exactly count as observational humor.
That said, Beauty Shop isn’t without its humorous moments. The movie’s plot, if it could be called that, is nothing more than a season’s worth of sitcom plots compartmentalized into five-minute bits, only some of which work.
As Beauty Shop begins, Gina has moved to Atlanta, where she pays for her daughter’s arts-school tuition by working for snotty stylist Jorge (Kevin Bacon).
Bacon’s dangly, wet-looking curls make him look like a castoff Bon Jovi bassist, but he hasn’t had this much fun with an unexpectedly silly role since Wild Things. The same can’t be said for other actors in similar situations: Andie MacDowell is as well utilized as she is in L’Oreal commercials; Mena Suvari’s character makes a weak leap to nastiness; and the great Della Reese gets off two great laughs before uttering a euphemism for a sexual organ and disappearing.
Back to the “story.” Gina quits after Jorge disapproves of her giving shampoo girl Lynn (Silverstone) a shot at cutting hair in his absence. Gina then buys her own business (in which one character says it looked like the ’70s threw up), cleans up shop (literally and figuratively by casting out mouthy stylists) and opens for business.
With her kindness, business sense and homemade conditioner (humorously dubbed “hair crack”), Gina begins eroding Jorge’s clientele. But she’ll soon match wits with her former boss while dealing with an insolent sister (Keshia Knight Pulliam, forgoing Rudy Huxtable’s pigtails for tight, skimpy skirts), a nagging building inspector and the prerequisite Hot Guy Upstairs, here played by Djimon Hounsou as a rom-com version of his In America character.
Latifah is at her finest in the scenes showing Gina’s business savvy, understanding that customer relations go beyond a cup of cappuccino and a bottle of Fiji. She’s at her worst when she misinterprets Jorge’s pronunciation of “moniker” for something racist and loses it in a scene that’s like something out of the worst Martin Lawrence movie.
And where Barbershop owner Ice Cube’s co-workers had memorable, sweet subplots, Gina’s stylists are stereotypes. The overweight, oversexed sports aficionado (Sherri Shepherd). The Maya Angelou-quoting Earth mother (Alfre Woodard). The Southern gurl who talks just lack Elly May Clampett (a scarily skeletal Silverstone). Check, check and check.
In true sitcom fashion, the movie soon becomes a very special episode of Beauty Shop, one in which a seemingly unfixable problem is cleared up in a day with seemingly no money to pay for it. On TV at home each week, Beauty Shop might be worth the occasional drop-in, but use the $8 for a haircut of your own.