Queen Latifah struts her stuff with ingratiating verve in “Beauty Shop,” a sunny and sassy comedy that somehow manages to breathe fresh life into familiar stereotypes and stock situations. A spin-off from the popular “Barbershop” franchise, pic doubtless will play well with ticketbuyers who flocked to recent sleeper “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” while also drawing a sizeable crossover aud. Down the road, this MGM release will be very, very attractive as homevid product.
Latifah effortlessly inhabits the lead role of Gina Norris, a character originally introduced in “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” as ex-girlfriend of Chicago barber Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube). Transplanted to Atlanta, where her young daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd) studies piano at a prestigious music school, Gina starts out as a stylist at a trendy salon run by Jorge Christophe (Kevin Bacon), a haughty Eurotrash poseur with an Austrian accent and an acidic wit.
Ultimately enraged by Jorge’s condescending ways, Gina quits to open her own beauty shop. Even with a hard-won bank loan, she can afford only a gone-to-seed salon in an inner-city neighborhood. But she presses forward, while instilling a new work ethic in a staff of headstrong stylists (Alfre Woodard, Golden Brooks and Sherri Shepherd).
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With a little assist from Lynn (appealingly perky Alicia Silverstone), a semi-ditzy blonde shampoo girl who also fled Jorge’s shop, and some electrical repair at the shop by Joe (smooth-moving Djimon Hounsou), her hunky upstairs neighbor, Gina gradually starts to thrive. She convinces two clients from Jorge’s salon (Andie MacDowell, Mena Suvari) to frequent her new shop. But Jorge plays dirty when it comes to coping with competition.
Taking its cue from other recent workplace comedies with predominantly African-American casts, “Beauty Shop” is episodic and casually constructed, loping from one loosely connected scene to the next while colorful characters swap jokey dialogue. Conversations tend to be loud and feisty. Among the running gags: Female employees repeatedly question whether James (gamely played by Bryce Wilson), the shop’s only male stylist, is a closeted gay or fashionable metrosexual.
To his credit, helmer Bille Woodruff (“Honey”) maintains an easygoing vibe by refusing to let anything get too far out of hand. Even Jorge’s deliciously fey camping is effectively modulated. Bacon’s clearly having the time of his life in the role, but he’s shrewd enough to recognize that less truly is more.
Don’t misunderstand: The directorial restraint isn’t too restrictive. Many of the supporting players make vivid impressions with hilarious character turns. (Woodard is a full-tilt hoot as a live wire who quotes Maya Angelou poetry with saucy fervor.) And yet, to a satisfyingly large degree, thesps remain in character without drifting far into caricature.
Scripters Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr., working from story by Elizabeth Hunter, don’t completely shy away from the harsh realities of racial tensions, and even manage to pull off the revelation of a white supporting character’s nasty side without melodramatic excess. For the most part, however, “Beauty Shop” is feel-good entertainment that is no less enjoyable for being somewhat predictable.
Standout tech values include ace lensing by Theo Van de Sande and music soundtrack peppered with well-chosen rap, hip-hop and oldies.