When the success of "Barbershop" led to its inevitable sequel, its filmmakers shrewdly introduced Queen Latifah into the predominantly male world of an African American barbershop in Chicago. Latifah was cast as a hair stylist in a salon next door, positioning her to engage in wordplay with the barbershop's hilariously obstinate Cedric the Entertainer. It was immediately clear Latifah would need a movie of her own, and "Beauty Shop" is the happy result.
Like its predecessors, "Beauty Shop" is a warmhearted comedy, and it has a realistic sense of a determined woman's struggle to make a better life for her family. Writers Kate Lanier and Norman Vance Jr. reveal an acute awareness of class and racial differences, largely through the use of humor. Of course, the girl talk that goes on is an endless source of laughter — the women discuss everything from bikini waxing to men shedding tears, and a lot of what they have to say is amusingly blunt.
The writers have come up with the clever device of having a radio show DJ (Adele Givens) provide a running commentary that adds bounce and humor to a well-paced picture. With a zingy script and a diverting ensemble cast, director Bille Woodruff turns "Beauty Shop" into a highly entertaining and at times thoughtful treat.
The filmmakers wisely move Queen Latifah's Gina Norris from Chicago to Atlanta, which means that both the distraction and expense of having the "Barbershop" guys on hand has been avoided. Gina is a widow with a small daughter (Kimora Lee Simmons), a budding classical pianist, and they live with Gina's mother-in-law (Miss Laura Hayes) and her trouble-prone daughter, Darnelle (Keshia Knight Pulliam), in an attractive Victorian cottage.
Gina works in a posh salon owned by the imperious Jorge (Kevin Bacon, hilarious), who has long bleach-streaked locks, a thick German accent and attitude to spare. The day soon comes when Gina has had it with the bitchy, self-absorbed Jorge, and she dares to strike out her own, taking over a salon in her neighborhood that is still decorated with a high '70s look. With more imagination and hard work than money, Gina transforms the shop and lines up stylists: the resolutely Afro-centric, New Age-y Ms. Josephine (Alfre Woodard), the tall, slim and gorgeous Chanel (Golden Brooks), the gaudy, plump and pregnant Ida (Sherri Shepherd), who are soon joined by the head-turner James (Bryce Wilson) and by one of Jorge's unhappy shampoo girls, Lynn (Alicia Silverstone). That Lynn is a young white woman with a Blue Ridge Mountains twang generates some tension in an otherwise African American shop that ultimately dissolves into mutual goodwill.
Somewhat to her surprise, Gina finds two of her clients at Jorge's seeking her out: dithery but sweet-natured Atlanta socialite Terri (Andie MacDowell) and the sleek but ultimately snobbish and shallow Joanne (Mena Suvari). That Jorge begins to feel competition from a neighborhood salon sets in motion a plot driven by character rather than myriad developments. Gina has her share of setbacks and challenges, but above her shop lives an electrician (Djimon Hounsou) who is handsome, single and as good at inspiring Gina's daughter in her music as he is in patching the salon's ancient wiring.
For all the vivid, amusing characters that surround Gina, "Beauty Shop" rightly belongs to Latifah, who comes into her own as a star and an actress in this film. She has an easy, earthy presence, and most important, she suggests that strength and vulnerability are not contradictory qualities in a character. Latifah has a natural command of the screen that makes it clear that "Beauty Shop" is yet another smart move in her flourishing career.