Good news: Queen Latifah is free of wet noodle Jimmy Fallon. She’s also plainly at ease in Beauty Shop, reprising her role as Gina, Cedric the Entertainer’s verbal sparring partner in Barbershop 2. Gina’s new adventure is pretty much the same adventure as Calvin (Ice Cube) had in his movies, except that her business is brand new, not inherited. And of course, she’s in charge of a beauty shop, not a barbershop, girls rather than boys.
This shop is in Atlanta, where Gina has moved so that her daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd) can attend music school. To support her family (including her mother-in-law Paulette [Laura Hayes]; the husband/son is dead), Gina is initially working at a shop owned by tight-jeansed, streaky-haired, altogether prissy Jorge (Kevin Bacon). But he’s something of a self-inflating tyrant, competitive with the terrifically talented Gina and mean to “shampooing girl” Lynn (Alicia Silverstone). Gina, all-knowing as well as generous, sees in Lynn incipient talent. And when she gives “shampooing girl” a “shot and she dunks it,” Jorge is flummoxed (“Zis is not ze way we do sings here at Jorge’s!”). When he tries to police her, Gina quits and opens her own place.
The rest of the film concerns her efforts to make the business solvent, tending to maintenance, fighting competition, and pleasing contentious customers. Most important, according to the franchise formula, she must keep a rein on her stylists, a boisterous bunch of good-natured trash-talkers: in addition to Lynn, she hires Miss Josephine (Alfre Woodard), Darnelle (Keshia Knight Pulliam), Chanel (Golden Brooks), Ida (Sherri Shepherd), and James (Bryce Wilson), impressive not only because he is very pretty, but also because he does his own cornrows.
Their discussion topics range from sex (Chinese balls, cheating men, position preferences) to Maya Angelou (“I got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs”) to race (Lynn’s presence strikes some as an attempt to “whiten up the place,” and timid client Terri [Andie McDowell] learns the happiness inherent in catfish dinners), offering up the sorts of lessons familiar from Cedric’s Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson jokes. The film includes as well some “teachable moments” in the form of efforts by little boy-aspiring music video director Willie (Lil’ JJ), who uses his bicycle to get footage of sidewalkers and customers’ behinds. Like the mini-player kid in Alicia Keys’ video for “A Woman’s Worth,” he’s aptly schooled by Vanessa, who has other artistic aspirations.
Vanessa is more impressed by the beautiful electrician who lives above the beauty shop, Joe (Djimon Hounsou). Not only does he fix the sockets, he also plays piano, usually at night when Gina’s trying to do the books, and on top of that, offers young piano prodigy Vanessa just the encouragement she needs: “Follow your heart, and your fingers will follow.” While Joe’s romance with Gina is predictable, both performers make their interactions warm and funny too (see especially, Gina’s negotiations with a recalcitrant spear). He helps her to surmount business and personal obstacles (Jorge has some tedious tricks up his sleeve), and remains steadfast even when she acts out. Supportive, sweet, and smart, Joe’s the ideal partner, with and without his shirt.
To its credit, Bille Woodruff’s film inverts a couple of stereotypes: a fashion-conscious black man is not gay, and his decision to date a white woman brings questions but not crisis. But for the most part, Beauty Shop follows along: girls now get to do what boys did. The question it leaves open — again — has t to with Latifah. When will she find material to accommodate her talent?