Ten years after his groundbreaking Boyz N the Hood, director John Singleton returns to South Central Los Angeles for another look at African-American life and culture. Baby Boy lacks the drama and urgency of the earlier film, and so far has failed to make much of a box-office dent against its summer blockbuster competition. Helped by a big-name soundtrack and hip-hop star Tyrese Gibson in his feature debut, the movie may ultimately find a more appreciative audience in ancillary markets.
Gibson plays Jody, a young man in his early 20s. Although he is unemployed and still lives at home with his mother Juanita (A.J. Johnson), Jody has already fathered children with two different women. Peanut (Tamara LeSeon Bass) still lives with her mother as well, but Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) has a job and her own apartment. Jody drifts between the two women, feeling no need to settle down as long as he can count on his mother.
But when Juanita brings home her new boyfriend Melvin (Ving Rhames), an ex-con with an imposing physique and a no nonsense attitude, Jody's comfortable life is thrown into disarray. Egged on by Yvette, Jody starts selling stolen dresses in neighborhood beauty salons. The extra money soothes tensions, at least until Jody learns that she is still in touch with her former boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg), who is now serving time. A fight escalates out of control. Exasperated, Yvette breaks up with Jody. When Rodney gets out of jail and moves into Yvette's apartment, Jody must decide whether or not to face up to his responsibilities.
Jody's efforts to make up to Yvette inspire some funny bits. Unable to use her car, he is forced to tool around the neighborhood on an undersized bicycle, trailed by several admiring young boys. As Jody, Gibson seems sincere, but overall his is not an especially nuanced performance. Rhames is a treat as Melvin. Shaving his head with a straight-edge razor or fixing scrambled eggs in the nude, he commands attention. Omar Gooding is almost as good, bringing a stoic dignity to his role as the goof-off Sweetpea, Jody's best friend.
The script, by director John Singleton, is one of the weaker elements of the movie. Plotting is episodic, with potentially interesting narrative ideas introduced and then abandoned. It's also repetitive, especially when Jody and Yvette begin yet another knock-down, drag-out fight. The melodramatic excesses during the climax are surprising, given Singleton's light touch throughout most of the film. The director deserves credit for tackling a worthwhile subject, but many will find the film's tone too soft and approving. After all, the central issue here is only whether a spoiled youth will snap out of a self-indulgent funk. Baby Boy has entertaining moments, but is too lightweight to win over broad audiences.