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Growing pains

Singleton returns to the 'hood, with less success in Baby Boy

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Filmmaker John Singleton may be compared to other African-American filmmakers like Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers, but his most challenging rival is his younger self. Just 24 years old, Singleton became the youngest Academy Award-nominee for best director (and the only African-American) for his 1991 debut film Boyz N the Hood.

With the exception of last year's Shaft, Singleton has dedicated himself to films of serious intent ever since. And yet, other than the underrated historical drama Rosewood, he's never equaled Boyz N the Hood. A decade later, Singleton's Baby Boy considers a similar Los Angeles 'hood, but though it has a relevant theme and provocative flourishes, it doesn't live up to its own worthy ambitions.

Baby Boy begins with a memorable and quite literal image of a black man (R&B singer and model Tyrese Gibson) submerged full-grown in a womb, complete with umbilical cord, as a voice-over espouses a theory about the infantilization of young African-Americans, who tellingly call their homes "the crib." But Singleton is less concerned with academic psychobabble than the demographic trend of young black people having children out of wedlock.

Tyrese's character Jody, for instance, has sired children with two women, and thus has a pair of baby-mommas, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and "Peanut" (Tamara LaSeon Bass). He lives with neither of them (though he drives Yvette's car with impunity), but with his unmarried mother Juanita (A.J. Johnson), in a bedroom shadowed by a giant mural of Tupac Shakur. His life is a prolonged adolescence with no job or commitment to either of his children. He claims to love Yvette, but we first see her immediately after having had an abortion at Jody's urging.

The criminal justice system casts a shadow over all the black men in Jody's circle. His hotheaded friend Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding, Cuba's brother) seems destined for prison, while Yvette takes phone calls from her incarcerated ex-lover Rodney (Snoop Dog). His mother takes up with a gentlemanly but intimidating ex-con (Ving Rhames) who wants to establish himself as the household's new alpha male while teaching Jody to be a man.

Singleton should be commended for addressing a theme that's pertinent and immediate, but his screenplay can be startlingly amateurish. You imagine him thinking, "I want to make a film about how young black men need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives." And so he writes a script in which Jody is told "You need to grow up and take responsibility for your life" about every 10 minutes.

Singleton takes genuine pleasure in slangy, casual dialogue. Try parsing Juanita's sentence: "If I want to bring a man all up in through here, I'll bring a man all up in through here." But he has too many awkward speeches about economics, and when characters start expressing their feelings, the words get soap-opera clunky: "When I say I hate you, what I meant to say is I love you"; "I lie to you because I care about your feelings"; "You're my rib. Heard of Adam's rib?" etc.

He serves his material better as a director, although the movie's first half is so full of obtrusive music it's as if he wants to squeeze as many songs as possible on the soundtrack. Baby Boy's most noticeable feature, though, are its numerous, eyebrow-raising sex scenes. Singleton isn't merely trying to titillate, but he wants to show how physical passion can defeat his characters' better judgment.

Baby Boy takes a more violent twist when Rodney gets released from prison and tries to take up with Yvette. Scarecrow-skinny with eyelids at half-mast and a flyaway shock of hair, Snoop Dogg unquestionably has a unique physical presence. But he's not accomplished enough a performer to make his role seem like more than stunt casting, lacking the innate quiet menace that Rhames effortlessly conveys. Bloodshed is never far from the lives of the film's characters, but when Singleton injects Boyz N the Hood-style drive-by shootings in the last act, it feels like a cheap way of engrossing his audience.

Apart from Rhames and the often likable A.J. Johnson, Baby Boy's cast often seems unpolished and in over their heads, with Tyrese proving too restrained and Henson too shrill. In fact, the leads have so many identical arguing scenes that by the end, Baby Boy feels like you've spent more than two hours with an enraged, unusually steamy after-school special all up in your face.

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