Even though Beauty Shop features Queen Latifah, who appeared in Barbershop 2, it is not a sequel to either of the popular and entertaining Barbershop films. Directed by Bille Woodruff, whose previous work, Honey with Jessica Alba, was almost completely dismissed by critics, and co-scripted by Kate Lanier, Beauty Shop is mostly a “woman’s film” that even appeals to a youthful male audience, with lots of sexy female eye candy that never misses the director’s gaze.
The story rather skillfully concerns female empowerment without falling to the many ploys of a modern chick flick. Latifah’s character, Gina Norris, is a young widow and single mother who fights to maintain her newly opened neighborhood beauty shop in Atlanta. Screenwriters Lanier and Norman Vance, Jr. tailor their narrative like a television sitcom and a stage play, sometimes resembling the “girl chat” comic qualities of Steel Magnolias. After leaving a chic downtown salon, run by an obnoxious Euro-trash boss named Jorge, Gina gathers a half dozen of her best friends and using her makeup skills, convinces a reluctant bank loan officer to give a small loan for a new salon.
Routine conflicts from Gina’s insistence on hiring a white stylist, an aggravating city inspector citing the shop for code violations, mild racial and ethnic banter between shop workers, a vengeful ex-boss and a potential love interest all make Beauty Shop into a loosely composed tale that provides effective PG-13 comic entertainment.
The filmmakers seem to nicely overcome many of the cliched sitcom situations with a remarkable ensemble cast. Since her Oscar-nominated performance in Chicago several years ago, Latifah has developed obvious screen presence and star qualities. Her comic timing is effective and her characterization goes beyond the surface to create a likable person who is realized on screen in a very natural way.
Alfre Woodard, one of the most underappreciated and talented actresses in film, plays a middle-aged stylist with great charm and comic effect. Reciting lines of Maya Angelou poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise,” she punctuates thematic moments nicely, while paying homage to a great contemporary poet. Little JJ is a spirited street kid, who hawks his overpriced candy bars and hassles the beauty shop costumers with his video camera.
Dijmon Hounson, star of Amistad, plays a quietly handsome African handyman and upstairs neighbor, whose subtle charms slowly melt Gina’s tough businesswoman demeanor. Former Cosby kid Keisha Knight Pulliam is Gina’s fresh niece with boy troubles, and even Della Reese cameos as a confused customer.
The film’s weakest qualities are characters that are a collection of male stereotypes and female bimbos, mostly played for their comic potentials with mixed success. Kevin Bacon’s artificial Jorge, with bleached hair and strained Austrian accent, is too forced. Bryce Wilson’s attractive male stylist becomes the joke of his female co-workers as they wonder if he’s really straight, and a parade of rich, white customers, played by Andie McDowell, Mena Suvari and others, are just stereotypes of suburban wealth. Alicia Silverstone’s country girl stylist who becomes a wannabe soul sister is also rather pathetic comic acting.
Despite these flaws, Beauty Shop has undeniable crowd-pleasing appeal for those who like urban comedy with a less vulgar approach. You also won’t be offended by any harsh political put-downs of past civil rights leaders, like the first Barbershop film.