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Movie Reviews

Baby Boy  

Tyrese Gibson... ...Jody
Omar Gooding... ...Sweet Pea
A.J. Johnson... ...Juanita
Taraji P. Henson... ...Yvette
Ving Rhames... ...Melvin
Snoop Dog... ...Rodney
Tamara LaSeon Bass... ...Peanut
Angell Conwell... ...Kim

Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence, and some drug use
Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Rock-A-Bye, Baby Boy

A true virtuoso of visual imagery, John Singleton has a knack for conveying a magnitude of meaning with a simple shot. The very first image in his latest film "Baby Boy" is another example. I won't reveal what it shows, but it clearly gives us insight into the nature of the story's protagonist.

Jody (Tyrese Gibson) is a twenty-year-old misguided African-American who is unemployed, lives with his mother, and shows no interest in facing the sometimes harsh complexities of adulthood. He has fathered two children by two different women - Yvette (Jaraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara Bass). His best friend, Sweetpea (Omar Gooding) is an engaging but volatile kid who has a sixth sense for finding trouble. His thirty-six year-old mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson) is growing tired of her son's incessant clinging and longs to live her own life again. The ultra-comfortable fabric of Jody's existence starts to tear when his too-reliable mother begins dating Melvin (Ving Rhames), a reformed "old gangster."

The complaints I've heard from some colleagues is that the character of Jody is too whiny, not likable, impossible to cheer for or care about. Perhaps, but that's not really Singleton's goal. Jody is more of a target than a hero. The ability to root for the kid rests with the characters encompassing him. The people in Jody's life are colorful, distinct, and eager to point him toward the right direction. The story is a struggle of influences. In one corner are the outside influences, both positive (his true love Yvette, his mother, and eventually Melvin) and negative (the aimless Sweetpea and Yvette's recently paroled ex-boyfriend Rodney, played by Snoop Dogg.) In the opposing corner are Jody's inside influences, those needy tendencies bred from his inability to break free from the nurturing one receives during infancy. At no point did I find myself liking Jody a great deal, but I remained hopeful that he'd find his way through the conspiring influences around him.

Another comment some had of the movie is that it's just another rehashing of Singleton's smashing debut "Boyz 'N The Hood". I didn't really sense that, either. The setting is the same, but the tone feels a little different. For me, this film seemed to parallel Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys". True, the locales are vastly dissimilar but the narrative arcs line up well. Both stories are of a person struggling to obtain the key to contentment held by their surrounding environment.

There's a danger in stories like this of losing an audience's attention should they abandon all faith in the central figure. Singleton holds his viewer's interest by showing us that Jody's problem doesn't lie in his intentions, but rather his perceptions of the world around him. That's the key. His behavior is often deplorable, but if we come to believe that his intentions are deplorable, any shred of sympathy we may hold would most assuredly be gone. I cringed at many of his thoughtless acts, but I never doubted that he could achieve a level of maturity if he just heeded the lessons sprouting up around him. A revealing scene has Jody in a typically animated argument with his girlfriend. During the exchange, his flailing arm catches her on the temple and she falls to the floor in tears. Realizing what he'd done, he sobs. "I'm sorry, baby," he tells her as he picks her up and carries her to the bed. "I'm so sorry." His words don't offer much comfort. "You said you'd never hit me, Jody!!" Not knowing what else to do, he begins to unbutton her blouse and kisses her gently on the neck, making his way lower and lower. He wants so desperately to comfort her, but hasn't a clue as to what her injured soul needs.

The role of Jody was originally written for the late Tupac Shakur (a mural of Shakur's face decorates Jody's bedroom). In Tyrese Gibson, Singleton has found an actor who wisely never forces any aspect of his performance. The arc is slow and rocky which is the way it should be, as lessons are seldom mastered after the first mistake. However, a viewer's interest in Jody's plight rests more with the supporting players, and every actor displays his/her character's impetus with the utmost clarity. I especially liked the performance of Ving Rhames, who plays Melvin as a man not looking to be a father figure, but who somewhat unwittingly offers the most potent lessons. He's a brawny, seductive smooth-talker who has obviously fought hard to leave his checkered past behind. Only when the naive Jody pushes his buttons does the man's ferocity come front and center. His character is also used as the movie's comic relief, especially in scenes where his libido tickles the fancy of Juanita as Jody tries unsuccessfully to get some sleep. (While going down on his love, Melvin utters the memorable line: "Oh, baby, you're gonna give me a cavity.")

"Baby Boy" is the kind of story that could only be told by a filmmaker who understands his characters fully ... what makes them likable, what makes them irritable, why they choose certain courses of action, etc. Many other films glamorize the life of their lead character(s) and bless them with a happy ending. Happy endings are indeed possible in the works of John Singleton, although his protagonists can only achieve it the old-fashioned way: they have to earn it.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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