John Singleton’s movies typically seem to drift between the essential and pointless, and his latest, “Baby Boy,” which revisits the south-central Los Angeles neighborhood he chronicled in his breakthrough film, “Boyz N The Hood,” is no different. So much of it works, and works well, that the entire scenes and subplots that have no place burn all the much more.
The movie presents itself as a critique of young black men in America, who, as the film’s opening narration states, have been “infantilized” by white racism. But it’s not meant as a jumping-off point to chronicle race relations, but to show this infantile state is willingly embraced, and used as a womb, of sorts, to refuse responsibility.
Singleton introduces Jody, firmly played by newcomer Tyrese Gibson, as a 20-year-old father of two still living with his mother and doing what he can to avoid work and coast comfortably. He eventually embarks on a career, which involves stealing clothes off the rack and selling them wholesale.
But that doesn’t stop Jody from living off the mother of one of his children Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), who loves Jody enough to let him ruin her life, if he sticks around long enough. Much of “Baby Boy” involves just how much she’ll put up with, when she’ll stop putting up with it, and what sort of ominous “get out” message she’ll send when she does – not exactly an original setup.
But to Singleton’s credit, he delivers several personal, poignant scenes that emphasize the love in their relationship, which makes the flip side of Jody irresponsibility seem all the more foolish. Unlike the director’s “Poetic Justice,” which portrayed romance without a pulse, “Baby Boy” gives reason to care, and invest.
That subplot runs parallel with that of Jody’s home life with Juanita (Adrienne Joi-Johnson) barely old enough to be Jody’s mother, and new boyfriend Melvin, played by Ving Rhames in one of those intense performances that changes the chemistry when he enters. Both Juanita and Melvin, while still young, have been around the hard-time block, and want a smoother ride this time. Jody blocks it, in a way, by pushing the threat of his getting booted from the house closer and closer to surface, until it explodes, sadly, in the worst way possible.
In fact, much of “Baby Boy” is sad. True, but still. Henson evokes a quiet sadness and resignation as Yvette, and has a scene, directly after an argument and smack dab in the midst of a strange makeup, where all of insecure fears (Singleton subtly shows her sucking her thumb throughout the movie) roil to the surface. And when she does boot Jody, her life doesn’t improve, as an ex-con boyfriend, played in suave, pot-ridden calm by Snoop Dogg, arrives on the doorstep, looking for sexual hospitality.
Snoop Dogg’s character, Rodney, and the rapper’s presence at all, signify a traditional flaw of Singleton movies to work in black music and modeling stars who lack the requisite acting chops to fill out a role. Only Ice Cube, among his denizens, made the leap well.
Snoop Dogg is counted on to drive the third act of the movie, and he can’t, especially in scenes where Rodney is called to be menacing. Singleton includes pointless scenes, such as Snoop driving, Snoop smoking a blunt and Snoop snapping his fingers to old school Al Green. The last scene has a mark of reticent cool to it (indeed, so cool it’s in the trailer) and has the mark of the star’s improvisational kickin’ it mode.
But Rodney’s presence puts a weird spin on the final half hour, and it doesn’t quite work, as Jody and best friend Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding, a little too Cuba) aim to settle the score. And there’s a scene where the two chase down a group of young thugs, then beat them one-by-one, that took the audience in the opposite direction Singleton intended them to go. In short, a lot scenes meant as menacing fall short into slight comedy, and only Rhames serves up bad-ass bluster on cue every time.
Still, when “Baby Boy” sticks to Jody and Yvette, there’s a real story. Henson, in her first significant role, shows chops to stay around for awhile. And Tyrese, as he’s known in the music world, is more than serviceable. He plays both sides of emotional spectrum like he’s been there before, and his Jody is an anchor of self-angst and pity that not only characterizes young black America in LA, but every race, right here, right now, wherever. Jody needs to grow up. Most of us do.
“Baby Boy” Starring Tyrese, Taraji P. Henson, Snoop Dogg and Ving Rhames. Written and directed by John Singleton. Rated R for strong language and some violence and sexual content. Playing at the Plaza 4.