3 stars (out of 4)
There are times when you can enjoy a picture that's packed full of cliches, formula plot lines, recycled jokes, and populated with big, brassy, in-your-face characters and a few caricatures. For me, that was the case with "Beauty Shop," a "Barbershop" spinoff tailor-made for Latifah, the full-figured, "Don't-mess-with-Mama" dynamo from the world of rap. It's a bouncy, funny picture that I enjoyed -- one that mostly eludes the perils of sequelitis and spinoff-itis, a lusty comedy about the importance of looking good and getting the right scissors in the right hands.
Now, "Beauty Shop" is no "Shampoo" and Latifah is no Warren Beatty. And this movie, produced partly by the George Tillman Jr.-Robert Teitel-Ice Cube combine behind "Barbershop," is not quite as good, or fresh, as the first "Barber-shop" -- though it easily tops the second.
But it's better than you'd expect from this kind of presold spinoff, even though the script is the same old stuff we often get from movies and TV. In this case, it's another David and Goliath tale, with a top-chop, sashaying hairdresser/beauty shop owner Gina (Latifah) going up against the big guys, especially the perfidious, phony-baloney, hairstylist supreme -- Jorge Christophe, played by Kevin Bacon in his fey mode.
Naturally, Gina leaves arrogant Jorge, starts her own shop in the Afro-American area, unites a sassy ensemble of hairstyling pros, customers and hangers-on (including Alfre Woodard, Alicia Silverstone and Della Reese), gets hassled by the city inspector, finds a love interest in the jazz-playing electrician upstairs, Joe (Djimon Hounsou), and eventually solves most of the problems the writers predictably throw her way.
The 2004 "Barbershop 2" marked the first time we saw Gina, who got a quick introduction as the beauty shop queen next door to Ice Cube's Chicago hair emporium/hangout. That cameo was patently a plant for this spinoff: a "Barbershop"-type show with an emphasis on women -- and the way they use this kind of place to hang out, commune, congregate and blow off steam. And though "B2" disappointed me, "Beauty Shop" is a lot of fun.
The script may not have one surprise to offer us. But it's been sharply clipped and handed over to an excellent company, a top-notch group who soften the shtick, spruce up those stereotypes, look plausible with their tonsorial tools, and generally make the time race by. This cast is not only unusually strong, they all look like they're having a marvelous time: from Andie MacDowell and Mena Suvari as Gina's regulars (one nice, one bitchy), to Keshia Knight Pulliam as Gina's selfish sister-in-law, to Golden Brooks and Sherri Shepard among the feisty hair-sculptors. Bacon may go a little far as Jorge, but you can forgive him; he's undoubtedly taking a welcome Liberace break from the dramatic rigors of "The Woodsman" and "Mystic River."
The director, talented video vet Bille Woodruf (who made TV's "Honey"), has exactly the right finicky, slick, amusing touch for this kind of material, and the cinematographer, the superb Dutch lenser Theo Van de Sande ("The Assault") gives every scene a sexy gleam.
Most of all, there's Queen Latifah, whose special charisma and easygoing scene-stealing is the right match for this kind of slick, warm, often-smart formula movie. Like her executive producer here, Ice Cube, and like Will Smith, two other rappers who zoomed all the way up through records and TV to movie stardom, Latifah has a natural ability to hold the camera and "live" on-screen: so natural that, in this case, she's able to become a kind of emcee-ringmaster, ushering in and showing off the rest of the bunch.
They're quite a crew. The diversity of the "Beauty Shop" ensemble is a large part of what makes it so much fun to watch; this gifted crowd embraces dramatic aces such as Woodard and Bacon, song-belter Reese, romantic comedy queen MacDowell, TV faves Pulliam, Brooks and Sheperd, and ex-teen movie sirens Silverstone and Suvari, the warmly virile Hounsou and a lot of others.And Queen Latifah, of course -- who may be another Warren Beatty before she's through.
Directed by Bille Woodruf; written by Kate Lanier & Norman Vance Jr., story by Elizabeth Hunter; photographed by Theo van de Sande; edited by Michael Jablow; art direction by Jon Gary Steele; music by Christopher Young; produced by David Hoberman, Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr., Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, language and brief drug references).
Gina - Queen Latifah
Lynn - Alicia Silverstone
Jorge - Kevin Bacon
Terri - Andie MacDowell
Ms. Josephine - Alfre Woodard
Joanne - Mena Suvari
Mrs. Towner - Della Reese
Joe - Djimon Hounsou