- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Queen Latifah may be the best thing that’s happened for Hollywood’s black actresses in years.

That’s when she’s not busy being the worst thing.

The zaftig actress breaks the mold of the svelte starlet, reveling in her curves in a way that gives empty platitudes like “You go, girl” depth.

She also co-produces her films, a sign of her growing clout.

So why are those movies so uninspired, and worse, casually ignorant?

Take “Beauty Shop,” for instance. The Queen’s latest film, a needless spinoff from the “Barbershop” franchise, sends mixed signals when it comes to racial acceptance.

“Barbershop’s” purpose — beyond transforming the hard-core image of its star, Ice Cube, into that of a family man — was to tap into issues of the day by allowing the cast members to ponder the events in honest, thought-provoking debates.

With “Beauty Shop,” the primary motives are either self- empowerment, demeaning a kindhearted white stylist or setting up co-star Kevin Bacon for his comeuppance.

Queen Latifah is Gina, a whiz with the shears who sweats for Jorge (Mr. Bacon), the owner of a chic Atlanta salon. Fed up with his demeaning management style, she quits to open a shop of her own.

Gina has a daughter to raise, Vanessa (Paige Hurd), a gifted child prodigy whose daddy conveniently died of a mystery ailment. She also has faith in the American dream, although she cries racism at the drop of a hat. Yet she manages to charm her way into a loan for a dilapidated salon, and before you know it (after a stale montage of renovation scenes) Gina’s Beauty Shop is open for business.

Her colorful sidekicks include a fertile stylist who names her children after athletes, and Miss Josephine, a poetry-spouting older woman (Alfre Woodard) meant to evoke Cedric the Entertainer’s Eddie from the “Barbershop” films. Miss Woodard has limitless gravitas, but that’s mostly wasted here.

The same can be said for Djimon Hounsou, who plays Joe, the too-good-to-be-believed electrician-pianist who lives above the shop and can’t help falling for Gina. Mr. Hounsou looks taxed by his idealized role, but his sheer presence is enough to snag our attention.

Presence, however, does not help Queen Latifah.

She won raves for her Oscar-nominated role as the no-nonsense Matron “Mama” Morton in “Chicago.” Yet the racial stereotypes that ran amuck in her next film, 2003’s “Bringing Down the House,” continue with “Beauty Shop.”

We watch as Lynn (Alicia Silverstone attempting a silly Southern twang), the salon’s sole white stylist, is shunned by her black peers — because of her skin color, a background that’s different from that of her colleagues or, possibly, both. “Beauty Shop” never makes it clear, and Lynn’s circumstances only improve when a co-worker advises her to change her personal style to fit in.

Just imagine the outrage if the race of the characters and their roles were reversed.

Lynn’s dilemma is just one of “Beauty Shop’s” erratic messages. We also have a tiny play-ah called Lil’ JJ (played by 13-year-old comic actor James “Little JJ” Lewis ), who’s got personality if not originality. Gina’s daughter rebuffs his pimp ways, but he’s seen more as a harmless fellow than a thug in training.

We have Mr. Bacon’s Jorge, played as an effete Euro type buried under a cascade of brittled blond tresses. It’s a role that might have been funny if it had actually been written. Instead, it’s Mr. Bacon dancing with a ludicrous foreign accent and preening nonstop. Even so, he still manages to sneak in a few chuckles.

Finally, there are several subplots — like the woman with a weakness for bad boys — that are never resolved and fail to enhance the main story line.

“Beauty Shop” means well. At heart, it chirpily tells its story of an independent woman with the chutzpah to go for the gold by breaking away from an egotistical boss to start her own business. Moreover, Gina not only wants to provide quality service, but also strives to treat her staff and customers like family.

But “Beauty Shop’s” redeeming virtues only make its awkward and stereotypical themes that much harder to swallow.

*

WHAT: “Beauty Shop”

RATING: PG-13 (Slapstick violence, crude language and sexual innuendos)

CREDITS: Directed by Bille Woodruff. Screenplay by Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr., from a story by Elizabeth Hunter.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE:www.mgm.com/ beautyshop

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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