Spin-offs are common in the sitcom world — December Bride begat Pete and Gladys, All in the Family begat Maude and The Jeffersons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show begat Phyllis and Rhoda, etc. But the concept is a bit more unusual in the movies. Spin-off films usually seem reserved for disastrous comic-book movies like Catwoman and Elektra, the mere mention of which could empty every theater in the civilized world.
Inconsequential as it undeniably is, Beauty Shop (the creation of which was carefully foretold in Barbershop 2) at least offers passable entertainment of the lightweight kind, providing several nice comic characters and scenes along the way.
Considering that screenwriters Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr. have such stinkers to their credit as Glitter and the TV show Girlfriends, this film’s charms are pretty remarkable — though the screenwriters’ resumes do go a long way toward explaining the movie’s plodding plotting. And given that director Bille Woodruff last gave us the egregious Honey, the fact that Beauty Shop is watchable at all constitutes the kind of miracle that’s usually reserved for founding a religion.
Don’t get me wrong. The script is awkward, with too many plots — none of which is all that interesting and all of which are terribly predictable. And they’re all tied up with a sitcom bow in an unsatisfying final reel that isn’t helped by the intrusion of a radio-host ex machina device. Woodruff’s direction is never more than utilitarian, but that’s not always a bad thing in a comedy. Indeed, the direction is at its worst on those thankfully rare occasions when he tries to get fancy.
Viewers should not approach Beauty Shop expecting another Barbershop or Barbershop 2, because this movie’s not as well-structured as either of those films and it has less substance. The film tries to copy the basics of the Barbershop formula, but it misses the key ingredients. The results are not unlike the difference between Coca-Cola and New Coke — they’re similar, but something just isn’t quite right with the latter.
Part of the problem is the movie’s construction. The Barbershop movies boasted simple plots that allowed them to wander off on tangents and digressions, then cleverly connected those tangents to the main plot. Beauty Shop, instead, is crammed full of plots and subplots that never connect. Worse, the movie sets them up and then ignores them, until it hits its last reel and frantically tries to resolve them all. The real problem with this is that almost none of the plots are actually interesting, and they’re all so predictable that it’s hard to care if they’re wrapped up or not.
The biggest drawback, though, is the lack of anything more substantial than the movie’s sitcom set-up. The kind of emotional awakenings that were afforded the characters in Barbershop are missing, as are most of the socio-political subtexts. It’s nice to see the generally underused Alfre Woodard in a substantial role as the Maya Angelou-quoting Ms. Josephine, but the role is too obviously an attempt to create a female version of Cedric the Entertainer’s Eddie — and the writing just isn’t there.
But taken on its own terms, as a ragtag assemblage of enjoyable, amusing skits, Beauty Shop is still fun, and the cast makes the most of what’s there. Queen Latifah recovers herself after the twin disasters of The Cookout and Taxi. Casting Djimon Hounsou, the embodiment of dignity, as her love interest, Joe, was a stroke of genius. His slightly bemused performance lends a subtle weight to the proceedings that would otherwise be sorely lacking.
Alicia Silverstone’s innately sympathetic performance nearly overcomes the worst Southern accent to assault the ears since Laurence Olivier. Nearly. (Note to filmmakers: Not everyone in the South talks like Scarlet O’Hara.) The legendary Della Reese has a nice comic bit, and there’s good support from Sheryl Underwood (Bulworth) as Catfish Rita and stand-up comic Adele Givens as DJ Helen. Unfortunately, the film’s borderline surprise — her importance as a kind of DJ ex machina — is spoiled by the trailer.
The less said about Kevin Bacon’s phony Euro-trash gay villain, the better, though Bacon at least appears to be enjoying himself in his less than one-dimensional role, which at least is more than can be said for Mena Suvari (The Musketeer) and her sketchily motivated perfidy.
Andie MacDowell — who ought to have coached Silverstone on the finer points of a Southern accent — has the best supporting role and the film’s single funniest line, which comes when she mangles the items on Catfish Rita’s menu. Her presence points up the true strength of the film: Despite its shortcomings, the movie is that rarest of things — an ensemble piece centered on women.
A few years back, MacDowell headed up just such a film — the unfortunately titled Crush, which died a quick, undeserved death at the box office, and which was a far better movie than this one. But don’t let that dissuade you from Beauty Shop. It’s still a treat to see this kind of female ensemble work, but it wouldn’t hurt to check out Crush on DVD as a follow-up. Rated PG-13 on appeal for sexual material, language and brief drug references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke