At the heart of "Baby Boy" -- director John Singleton's return to his "Boyz 'N the Hood" roots -- is a character with whom it's extremely hard to sympathize.
Played by R&B hip-hop artist Tyrese Gibson, his name is Jody and the fact that he's only 20 years old is supposed to excuse him for being a selfish, shallow, disdainful, disloyal, disrespectful, lying, cheating, irresponsible hypocrite with a huge chip on his shoulder.
Singleton, who set this story in the same neighborhood as "Boyz," expects us to see "Baby Boy" as Jody's journey into manhood because toward the end of the film he has a tired cliché of an insincere quickie epiphany. He realizes maybe he should stop running around on one of the two girls who have already borne his children, start taking some responsibility, get a job and support his kids -- or at least one of them. Well, duh.
Riding along on this journey, we learn that the girl he wants to settle down with eventually ("I love you woman," he hollers during a fight about his cheating. "You got my son and you're probably going to be my wife!") isn't exactly a prize herself. Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) is a shallow, pouty whiner who is addicted to drama. Instead of taking charge of her life and giving Jody his waking papers, every time he cheats, takes her car or does something stupid, she throws a head-snapping tantrum. If he hasn't done anything wrong lately, she baits him into a fight anyway. Then they have make-up sex. Very graphic makeup sex.
"At least he don't hit me like your boyfriend," she snaps at a girlfriend on the phone. The other girl replies, "At least we're living together!" Wow, there's a pair of ringing endorsements. Talk about low standards.
Singleton does an adequate job depicting the self-imposed discord of Jody's soul (in part through some chaotic nightmare sequences) and painting a vivid picture of lower-middle-class inner-city life. He sets his story against backdrops of spontaneous flea markets in liquor store parking lots and homes with plastic covers on the furniture. He builds a reverberating tension between Jody and his 36-year-old mother (A.J. Johnson) over her burly new boyfriend Melvin (Ving Rhames), an ex-con (with a "187" tattoo) working hard at turning his life around. And Singleton has a talent for punctuating that tension with humor, like the morning Jody wakes up to find Melvin making breakfast wearing nothing but socks.
It's great to see Rhames in a role with some depth again (he deserves better than playing sidekicks to white heroes in "M:I-2" and "Entrapment"), and he gives a strong performance as Melvin hints at intimidating glimpses of his suppressed inner brute while putting up with a lot of condescension from Jody.
Although Gibson in the lead was also a good choice -- his handsome, angry, angular face lends credence to Jody's stormy nature -- the fact remains that while the ensemble characters from "Boyz 'N the Hood" felt trapped by their environment, Jody is just lazy and callow.
For the better part of the film, Singleton focuses on Jody's troubles with his girlfriend and his mother. But he turns up the pressure in the third act with the prison release of Yvette's gangbanging ex-boyfriend, played by Snoop Dogg. Once he's on the scene it isn't long before guns come out and Jody is finally faced with some conflict he doesn't bring upon himself.
If Jody started to get his act together before the last reel, "Baby Boy" might have been an interesting modern parable about learning the importance of respect, integrity and stability from the uphill battle of finding one's place in life, especially as the product of an inner-city climate. But as it is, Jody's journey is practically meaningless since we're supposed to believe his entire nature changes forever based on a cheap, movie cliché change of heart.
Run time: 130 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 27th June 2001
Box Office USA: $27.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $29.4M
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 65 Rotten: 27
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: John Singleton
Starring: Tyrese Gibson as Joseph Summers, Taraji P. Henson as Yvette, Omar Gooding as Sweetpea, Ving Rhames as Melvin 'Mel', Snoop Dogg as Rodney, Adrienne-Joi Johnson as Juanita, Angell Conwell as Kim, Kareem J. Grimes as Do Dirty, Tracey Cherelle Jones as Sharika
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