Gina Norris (Queen Latifah) bails out of a posh Atlanta salon when her egomaniacal boss (Kevin Bacon) disses her work one time too many. She decides to open her own shop, with a staff that includes a dippy shampoo girl (Alicia Silverstone) and a cadre of brassy stylists, initially more interested in giving attitude than customer satisfaction. Some of her classy old clients (Andie MacDowell, Mena Suvari) seek her out, as well as a bunch of new ones, and she achieves a success beyond her wildest dreams.
Coming after the tired disappointment of Barbershop 2, Beauty Shop is something of a revelation. Bille Woodruff directs the comedy with a warm generosity of spirit, which gives all the actors in a delightful ensemble cast their chance to shine via a snappy script which, thankfully, never sweats the hard stuff, like plot conflict, too much. The jokes and putdowns come fast and furious and, while often mega-bitchy, are never really mean-spirited. The town of Atlanta itself comes off with a gleaming, fun-filled glamour, with an anything-is-possible vibe, the way Manhattan used to be. The message-y parts are doled out in a blessedly non-preachy way, like Gina's moratorium on the use of the "N-word," not to mention "bitches" and "ho's" in her salon, and the emphasis her young daughter (Paige Hurd) places on correct English and classical music over hiphop. Lil' JJ is hilarious as a video-camera-wielding, foulmouthed little hustler of a boy who gets seriously schooled in respect for women.
Latifah rules over this terrain with her usual beneficent charisma and explosive comic timing. (It must be a relief to get material as juicy as this after some of her recent lamer outings.) Bubbly Silverstone deserves a Good Sport Award for all the abuse she takes from her skeptical co-workers, and delivers a dance scene with Bryce Wilson (playing a stud stylist amusingly assumed by all to be gay) that is both sexy and funny-in short, everything that rather embarrassing Travolta-Thurman dance reprise in Be Cool strived so hard to be. Bacon steals his every scene as a Teutonic flaming riot, the best Eurotrash caricature since Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop. (His name alone, Jorge Christophe, says everything.) Gina's crew is a cornucopia of sassy delight, and includes Alfre Woodard juicily delivering Maya Angelou poems to a fare-thee-well, Sherri Shepherd as a plus-size stylist unashamedly lusting for Wilson, former Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam, now eye-poppingly sexy, and Michelle Griffin in a wild bit as a monkey bread-selling entrepreneur. Djimon Hounsou, as Gina's upstairs jazz-playing love interest with a Charles Boyer accent, however, must be a little tired at this point of playing the idealized paragon of every woman's romantic dreams.