[Screen It]

(2001) (Tyrese Gibson, Taraji Henson) (R)

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Drama: A young and unemployed black man learns that he must grow up and take responsibility for his actions, behavior and life.
Jody (TYRESE GIBSON) is a 20-year-old African-American who is unemployed, misguided and has yet to grow up. The father of two children by two different women -- Yvette (TARAJI HENSON) and Peanut (TAMARA LaSEON BASS) - Jody still lives at home with his single, 36-year-old mother, Juanita (A.J. JOHNSON), and spends his time - when not sleeping around - hanging out with his thug friend, Sweetpea (OMAR GOODING).

Things change in his life when his mother starts seeing Melvin (VING RHAMES), a former gangster and convict who's changed his lifestyle and become a self-employed businessman who's trying to do the right thing. Jody fears that Melvin, despite his seemingly gentle demeanor and street-honed philosophical ways, will eventually beat his mother like her boyfriends before him, or at least cause her finally to kick him out of the house.

To make matters worse, Yvette wants Jody to stop sleeping around - something he doesn't want to do - and he must also deal with Rodney (SNOOP DOGG), an "acquaintance" of hers who's just been released from prison and has stopped by for an unexpected and prolonged visit. As Jody tries to deal with all of that and make something of his life, he eventually realizes he must take responsibility for his past, present and future.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
As I sat down for our press screening of "Baby Boy," a certain sense of dread overcame me. It wasn't because I thought the movie was going to be scary or disturbing, or that it was another film along the lines of "Look Who's Talking" or "Baby Geniuses" (although that should be enough to scare a grown man silly).

Instead, it was the though of "Oh no, not another urban drama about a young man growing up in the 'hood and facing the various temptations, dangers and advice from others in his environs." The fear was valid since so many other films - such as "Boyz N the Hood," the breathtaking directorial debut of the then 23-year-old filmmaker, John Singleton - have tackled that subject and/or used such a setup as their premise that they've become both repetitious and redundant.

Most all of them include drugs and/or drink, rap music and explicit sexual scenes. Then there are the thugs with guns, fractured family life and the liberal use of profanity and the "n" word, all of which are present in this film, Singleton's thematic return to the streets of Los Angeles, but not with the same characters or story as in his debut effort.

Despite the inclusion of all of those familiar and varyingly stereotypical elements, however, one immediately senses that something's rather different about this film. After all, one doesn't often see such an urban tale opening with a shot of a grown, naked man lying in the fetal position in a large-scale mockup of a womb.

The reason behind Singleton's use of such a visual is seemingly two-fold. As accompanied by a brief stint of voice over narration, the writer/director of films such as "Shaft" and "Rosewood" poses the thought that many young adult black males have yet to "grow up" due to various cultural trappings where such an individual's woman is his "momma," his friends are his "boys" and his residence is known as his "crib."

While that theorem fuels part of the film, even if the examination and final report aren't as insightful as some might expect or hope, the scene is also present to demonstrate that the film isn't going to take itself as seriously as its predecessors or other such contemporary films.

That doesn't mean that Singleton has gone the spoof route of the Wayans brothers with "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" or "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood." However, the film is surprisingly funny, from cute little touches - such as neighborhood kids who are always hanging around or riding their bikes alongside the protagonist during varying moments of duress - to some laugh out loud moments such as the sight of Ving Rhames standing buck naked in the kitchen making breakfast and an equally amusing sexual visual.

Yet, the film's mixture of comedy and gritty reality isn't always as smooth or harmonious as it should be. Indicative of that is a scene where the protagonist's hoodlum friend decides to teach him how to punch some young punks who earlier robbed and beat him. The moment is surprisingly funny, a point that makes the scene that much more ugly and disturbing since we know we shouldn't be laughing at such behavior and material.

Nevertheless, much of the film plays out that way, alternating between comedy and drama, resulting in an effort that's decidedly uneven. Such an off-kilter feeling prevents any sort of momentum - be it comedic or dramatic - from ever building to any discernible degree and/or taking hold and guiding the proceedings.

The generally decent to good performances from the cast somewhat offset some of that problem, even as the performers must play or contend with various character stereotypes. As the confused and troubled protagonist, model/singer/MTV VJ Tyrese Gibson (who makes his feature film debut) turns in a surprisingly good performance. Doing a decent job creating a somewhat sympathetic character despite his myriad of serious flaws, Gibson is surprisingly effective in the role as he'll get most viewers - to some degree or another - interested in him.

Taraji Henson ("The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle") embodies the unenviable role of playing the single mother with the unfaithful boyfriend (resulting in lots of glaring looks, declarations and yelling), but manages to do a decent job with it. Omar Gooding ("Ghost Dad," TV's "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and younger brother of Cuba who appeared in "Boyz N the Hood") and rapper turned actor Snoop Dogg ("Ride," "Caught Up") appear as the best friend and antagonistic thug respectively, and both create believable characters.

A.J. Johnson ("The Inkwell," "Sister Act") plays a different sort of single mother to the protagonist, but the chronic scene-stealer from start to finish is Ving Rhames ("Mission: Impossible 2," "Rosewood"). Playing a former thug turned streetwise & philosophical entrepreneur, Rhames is an absolute blast to watch - whether speaking or just reacting - as he plays a more amusing version of the father figure played by Laurence Fishburne in Singleton's earlier film.

Certainly not as good or powerful as that picture - although to be fair, it's clearly not trying to be the same sort of film, let alone a sequel - the film may surprise some by its unexpected comedic elements. Yet, it never delves deeply enough into its early theory about young black male behavior nor feels particularly novel in its basic plot. It also occasionally becomes too wound up in its overly melodramatic moments and is a bit too uneven in its storytelling approach for its own good or the viewer's ultimate enjoyment. As a result, "Baby Boy" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 13, 2001 / Posted June 27, 2001

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