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Beauty Shop
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date: 4.12

Bille Woodruff's Beauty Shop capitalizes on the surprise crossover success of Barbershop to target a mixed audience with a mixed cast: Queen Latifah (as Gina, the hairdresser), Alicia Silverstone, Andie McDowell, Mena Suvari and Kevin Bacon for the white folks, and then Alfre Woodward, Keisha Knight Pullian, Sheryl Underwood, the sexy Hounsou and Little JJ, among others, including real life diva wives of famous athletes playing diva wives of famous athletes.

Gina works for Jorge-Kevin Bacon doing an over-the-top parody of a gay high fashion hairdresser-as the most talented of his stylists, doling out marital advice to the strung out white women who frequent her (Andie McDowell as Terri and Suvari as Joanne), while offering encouragement to the (white again) shampoo girl with aspirations, Lynn (played by Alicia Silverstone). Jorge bullies her one too many times and she quits, moving back to the Black part of town in Atlanta to open a shop of her own.

This movie doesn't quite do what Barbershop did; it doesn't have the philosophical edge. Tellingly, when the scene gets transposed to a woman's world, things are presented as more frivolous and, perhaps, just a little bit sadder. Serious advice might have worked, but this one stays away, giving us instead the story of Gina's aspirations and defeats, her pluck and drive, her big heart, and the struggles of her piano-playing daughter Darnelle (Pullian, formerly Rudy Huxtable) and always-in-trouble sister. Everybody else-except maybe Alicia Silverstone--seems there for some form of character acting or comic relief; we never really get involved in their lives. For the most part, the story plods predictably, avoiding serious emotional highs or lows. Queen Latifah is a wonderful actor, but here's she's almost too muted, too maternal. Silverstone does a great job too, plausibly playing southern trash with a heart of gold, but her set-up as the butt of the Black women's jokes is neither raucously funny, as it might be, nor pathos-inflected. The best moments here are one-scene vignettes. And they are really good-it's just that they don't quite add up.

The dialogue is great; it's really what drives the movie and captures our attention, from the coining of Gina's miracle-working conditioner as "hair crack" to the precociously sexual boy-with-the-video camera's bravado and Catfish Rita's rhyming self-advertisements. And, in spite of its slowness and lack of spark, I was moved. There's something very realistic about the movie: people's lives are hard, they struggle to make ends meet, they have dreams hopes and fears and those dreams hopes and fears are of an ordinary human dimension. What's fantasy and wish fulfillment about the movie is marked as just that and, however implausible the dream come true scenario is, one is still struck by how human and ordinary the dream actually is: to have a happy and successful kid, to find good friends, maybe even love, and to get a fighting chance at the American dream.

In the new wave of Black morality plays, this one, unlike Diary of a Mad Black Woman, has a light and gentle touch and almost no Jesus, even if it's nowhere near as funny and outrageous. It's got a womanly touch one might say, and a mature one. It's no surprise that, although the director's male, the writers are women, one of whom also wrote the screenplay for Set It Off, another much less optimistic movie about the struggles of aspiring African American women. Even if one gets the feeling this film plays just a bit too much to white audiences in the suburbs, it's still got realness, heart, and great verbal banter.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.