In the sequel Barbershop 2: Back in Business, Queen Latifah had a cameo role. Her character wasn’t integral to the story; she was just introduced to set up a spin-off movie called Beauty Shop. In this new film, she returns as Gina, a hair stylist who left the Chicago neighborhood where Ice Cube ran his barber shop to head for Atlanta. Her young daughter has received a scholarship to a prestigious music school, and Gina wants to give the girl an opportunity to study there. To make ends meet, she works in a high-end salon owned by a self-obsessed Eurotrash guy named Jorge (Kevin Bacon). After they get into a fight, Gina quits, takes out a bank loan, and opens up her own place.
Her employees are pretty reminiscent of those in the Barbershop pictures. They include Lynn (Alicia Silverstone), the lone white person trying to fit in, and Ms. Josephine (Alfre Woodard), an older employee with a knack for stirring things up. (She is to this movie what Cedric the Entertainer was to Barbershop although much less provocative.) Two crucial clients leave Jorge’s salon and come to Gina’s: Terri (Andie MacDowell) is a rich woman who doesn’t realize her husband is cheating on her even though everyone else does, and Joanne (Mena Suvari) is a young woman who spends $16,000 on breast implants. She also may be able to help Gina sell her homemade conditioner to Cover Girl. (Queen Latifah is, of course, a Cover Girl spokeswoman, which makes this plot development seem like a blatant case of product placement.)
The male species is represented by James (Bryce Wilson), a metrosexual who sparks with Lynn, and Joe (Djimon Hounsou), the kindly electrician who helps Gina fix her place up. Joe serves several purposes in the plot: he’s a convenient love interest for Gina, and he’s also an accomplished pianist who gives her daughter some outside tutoring.
There is a lot to like in Beauty Shop starting with Queen Latifah. She’s really something special. Like Will Smith, Latifah started off in rap music, found sitcom stardom, then became a movie star and Oscar nominee. All the while, her innate likeability has given her broad appeal across demographics. Gina is a character tailor-made for the actress. She is a smart, witty, plus-size woman who’s not afraid of her own sexuality – just like the actress herself. In the opening scene, Gina says to her daughter, “Do these pants make my butt look big?” The girl responds with a yes, to which Gina replies “Good!” I’ve always thought that Queen Latifah’s physical appearance perfectly matched the grandness of her personality; if she were built like Halle Berry, she wouldn’t look right. It’s great to see this actress play this character and redefine the conventional images of beauty. Latifah is a force of nature and it’s just about impossible not to like her.
The supporting cast ably backs her. I especially enjoyed Alicia Silverstone. Her character starts out as a shy, Southern white girl. After months working in the salon, she becomes more exposed to black culture and starts to integrate some of it into her daily life. There’s a hilarious scene in a night club in which Lynn suddenly – and shockingly – begins to, as the song says, “shake it like a salt shaker.” Kevin Bacon is also quite funny as Jorge, and Djimon Hounsou has a sweet chemistry with Queen Latifah.
As good as these things are, Beauty Shop never quite gelled as a whole for me. That may be because Gina’s salon is not as interesting a place as Ice Cube’s shop. When I reviewed the original Barbershop, I wrote: “What makes this movie tick is the colorful interaction of the characters in that shop. There are rivalries and jealousies, friendships and attractions. The place is always filled with customers who are ready to debate any subject at any time. I loved the way the movie captures the essence of conversation, especially the constant back-and-forth that inevitably takes place when so many different people all weigh in with their opinions.”
This movie has the same problem that Barbershop 2 had: it fails to capture that magical feeling that the salon is a place where you want to hang out. It’s not as vibrant or alive as Ice Cube’s place was in the original Barbershop. The women at Gina’s mostly seem interchangeable in their personalities. There’s no back-and-forth between them. The topics they discuss are often predictable (cheating men) or kind of crude (the pros and cons of bikini waxing). The discussions – which seriously push the edge of the PG-13 envelope – seem designed to be punch lines rather than explorations that draw the audience in. I missed that feeling of being a fly on the wall of this shop where so many disparate people come together to sort life out.
Overall, I’m split right down the middle on this film. It was very pleasant to watch. I liked the actors, particularly Queen Latifah, who lights up the screen. I enjoyed the overall good nature of the picture, with its optimistic storyline about persevering in the face of difficulty. I laughed at some of the material. Something is missing, though, and that is the magical spark of discussion. The first Barbershop had it, and it made me want to hang out there, listening to every word that was spoken. The characters in Beauty Shop, in contrast, talk a lot but don’t ultimately say much of substance. The film has a lot of good things around the edges, but its core lacks the spark that would make us want to return again and again to Gina’s salon.
( 1/2 out of four)
Beauty Shop is rated PG-13 for sexual material, language and brief drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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