IN "BEAUTY Shop," a spinoff from Ice Cube's "Barbershop," Queen Latifah holds court over a dish-talking circle of female hairdressers for whom no subject is taboo. There isn't an original moment in the movie, but the attitude is loose. No fan of salty-tongued banter, head to-and-fro'ing encounters or Queen Latifah should be disappointed.
She plays Gina Norris, a determined Chicago transplant in Atlanta, who's the best stylist in the exclusive salon of snooty Austrian hairdresser Jorge Christophe (played by Kevin Bacon, and, yes, that's an Austrian named Jorge). Gina, who's in Atlanta so her child (Paige Hurd) can attend music school, dreams of leaving the demanding, treacherous Jorge and starting her own place.
Queen Latifah, center -- with Golden Brooks, back left, and Alfre Woodard, back right -- opens her own salon in the comedy "Beauty Shop."
(Sam Emerson -- Mgm)
She quits and takes a chance on a rundown location. Using her special charm to persuade a bank manager to give her a loan (she offers her an instant beauty makeover in the ladies room), Gina slowly builds her house of headstrong women (well, most of them). It just so happens that a studly electrician and amazing pianist (Djimon Hounsou) lives upstairs. He shows Gina's daughter how to play piano passionately, and he knows how to juice Gina's neglected, needy circuitry.
Gina, her employees (including an overtly seductive Keshia Knight Pulliam) and clients sass and shout. They show the love and take it away. And their omnipresent patron saint is a radio DJ who talks directly to her "Hot-'lanta" girlfriends, "Do the Right Thing" style. (The best role goes to Alfre Woodard as the Maya Angelou-quoting Miss Josephine, who chews scenery with the precision of a pocket chainsaw.) They may have their differences, these women, but they're a tightknit, sisterly team, as defined in the well-worn articles of Oprah-centric entertainment.
It's a lifestyle thing, and pretentious Jorge doesn't have the slightest clue why he's losing all his clients to Gina. Speaking of Bacon, his shtick is so bizarre, so blissfully wrong, he's almost good. (The movie has a face-saving plot twist to explain his peculiar performance.) Alicia Silverstone (playing a shampoo girl from down south), Andie MacDowell and Mena Suvari (as clients) make sporting attempts to mark some turf. Silverstone fares best as a woman who holds her own despite merciless grief from all sides. But all four come across as the equivalent of cultural hostages -- forced into this movie to expand the target audience.
At the center of everything, of course, is Queen Latifah, who plays something between den mother and in-house saint. But by having the whole movie built around her American-dream determination, responsible motherhood, take-no-nonsense gumption and other upstanding traits, we're left with a life-affirming, zestless center. "Beauty Shop" spends too much time being convivial and not enough time looking for the kind of real conflict that begets a good comedy. Ultimately, the movie's not much more than a shopworn coronation.
BEAUTY SHOP (PG-13, 105 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations, obscenity and some drug references. Area theaters.