Monday, May 24, 2010

Beauty Shop (MGM, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Beauty Shop, a 2005 MGM production that was a follow-up to the two previous hits Barbershop (2002) and Barbershop 2 (2004). It starred Queen Latifah as Gina, a carry-over character from Barbershop 2, who has moved from Chicago to Atlanta to get her daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd, who, praise be, looks enough like Queen Latifah we can actually believe they are mother and daughter) into a prestigious music school so she can study classical piano (which couldn’t help but make me think of Cecil Tayor’s acid comment to biographer A. B. Spellman that you could get a grant to teach a Black person to play Beethoven but not to play jazz — though that was then and this is now and there are actually grants available to learn jazz).

Gina is making ends meet by working in the hair salon owned by egomaniac queen Jorge (an almost unrecognizable Kevin Bacon), but when they have an argument (he’s upset that she’s Scotch-taped a photo of her family — herself, Vanessa and her late husband, Vanessa’s dad — to her mirror) she walks out and decides to start a shop of her own. She finds a location in the middle of the African-American part of town, talks her way into a $30,000 bank loan by giving the woman in charge of the desk an impromptu hair makeover in the bank’s restroom, and has to deal with various problems including the existing staff at the salon (two of whom walk out because they won’t work under Gina’s rules), the horrible décor and general decrepitude of the building (when she walks into it she and her white friend and co-worker Lynn — played by Alicia Silverstone before she diva’d her way out of a potentially major career and Reese Witherspoon became the go-to girl for that “type” — say, “It looks like someone ate up the 1970’s and threw them up all over here,” the funniest line in the film) and a concerted effort by a state board inspector to put them out of business. When this starts happening we know Jorge is behind it in some way — and later, many reels later, the suspicion is confirmed when Willie (L’il JJ), a pre-pubescent aspiring rapper with a crush on Vanessa, films Jorge and the state board inspector meeting. (Frankly, I was hoping it would develop that Jorge was having an affair with the inspector and that’s how he got him to target Gina’s salon, but no-o-o-o-o: the lure was just financial, not sexual.)

Gina also has to deal with the egos of both her staff and her customers — among the latter are two of her carry-overs from Jorge’s, Terri (Andie MacDowell), who falls in love with the catfish being sold from a cart by hanger-on Rita (Sheryl Underwood); and Joanne (Mena Suvari), a white woman who gets breast implants and is kidded about them by one of Gina’s stylists. The gimmick is that Joanne has set up a meeting with the Cover Girl company to discuss licensing Gina’s own formula for conditioner (“hair crack,” the other beauty shop women call it) — but when Joanne feels insulted and Gina refuses to fire the stylist who insulted her, Joanne calls the deal off and it looks like its accumulated bills and the efforts of Jorge and the state board are going to succeed in putting Gina out of business until a series of predictable last-minute reversals saves the day. The writers (Elizabeth Hunter, story; Kate Lanier and Norman Vance, Jr., screenplay) were clearly following what in the 1930’s was called the “two-yard-line” rule of script construction — that if you were writing about a football game, the most effective way to do so was to have the team the audience was rooting for pushed back to their own two-yard-line so they could mount one spectacular play at the end in which they went 98 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown. The writers accordingly lard all the setbacks they can think of on Gina and the other sympathetic characters so they can stage their story’s equivalent of that 98-yard play.

There are also a few males in the film (besides Jorge and the inspector), including drop-dead-gorgeous Djimon Hounsou as Joe, an electrician and aspiring piano player who lives above the beauty shop and who, from the moment his tall, dark and incredibly handsome body appears (shirtless) in the film, is clearly destined to be Gina’s love interest — only she doesn’t realize that until the movie is nearly over — and in addition coaches Vanessa on piano and teaches her jazz songs like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” leading her ultimately to break off the classical piece she’d planned as her audition for that prestigious school and play a jazz medley instead. There’s also James (Bryce Wilson, not as hot-looking as Hounsou but still a treat to look at), whose success at braiding his own hair leads Gina to hire him and whose sexual orientation is a source of speculation among the women at the shop until he establishes his hetero credentials by falling cross-racially in love with Lynn.

Beauty Shop could have been a good deal funnier than it was — when Jorge, back at his old shop trying to hold on to the customers who haven’t yet deserted him for Gina, has to shampoo someone personally, he loses control of the hose and sprays it in his own face, a rare slapstick moment in a film that could have used some more gags like that — but the writers and director Bille Woodruff were clearly going for nice, amusing gab-fest with most of the laughs coming from salty dialogue (though not too salty: the DVD included a “gag reel” that featured a lot more swearing than was in the film proper — I suspect they censored their tongues to preserve a PG-13 rating, which they got on appeal) rather than visual gags, and that they achieved quite nicely. I still want to see Queen Latifah star in a biopic of Bessie Smith — she’s proven in the film Chicago that she can look believable in a 1920’s setting, and she’s absolutely the right type, physically and vocally — but though Beauty Shop is hardly a stretch for her talents it is a nice, amusing little film — and it offers a few interesting cameos, including one short but very sweet one by veteran singer/actress Della Reese as one of the first customers in Gina’s shop.