John Singleton's new film, "Baby Boy," is a work of political schizophrenia — a movie with so many contradictory things to say that it ends up saying nothing.
In an era when ideological viewpoints are bleached from virtually all popular entertainment, it may seem churlish to complain about a film this ambitious. But "Baby Boy" — which takes place in the same South Central Los Angeles milieu Singleton explored so intelligently in his 1991 debut film, "Boyz N the Hood" — is caught between attacking its characters and embracing them, between ridiculing their way of life and celebrating it. Singleton is a social critic who wants to be liked by those he criticizes. Put simply: He wants his cake, and he wants to eat it, too.
Jody (Tyrese Gibson) — the "baby boy" of the title — is a 20-year-old man in a state of arrested development. He's the father of two children by two women, but he takes little responsibility for either family. Instead, he continues to live at home with his mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), while scraping together a living selling stolen clothing to women.
The early scenes of "Baby Boy" have a strident, barbed tone that's new for Singleton — as if he's grown exasperated over the past 10 years, because the problems that plagued this community in "Boyz N the Hood" are still no closer to being solved. Johnson has — pointedly — been cast as the mother because she looks almost the same age as Gibson; Tamara LaSeon Bass and Taraji P. Henson, playing Jody's girlfriends, Peanut and Yvette, both seem to be barely out of their teens. This cycle of young people becoming parents too soon is mirrored by unmistakable evidence that there are too few role models to begin with in the community. When Jody first begins to contemplate getting a job, Singleton's camera follows him on the streets — and pans along to show us dozens of other young black men selling watches and videos and trinkets, presumably all of them stolen.
Had Singleton sustained this level of anger, "Baby Boy" truly would have been something to behold: a poison-pen letter from the one who got away. But the director isn't after that — or rather, he doesn't quite have the audacity to reach for that. Instead, he wants to mold "Baby Boy" into a more traditional melodrama, and he very much wants Jody to be its hero.
And then there is the movie's violence — so confused, and so lacking in moral perspective that even those willing to give this movie the benefit of many doubts will probably be turned off.
Singleton's champions will no doubt argue that the confusions of "Baby Boy" are part of the point — that he's seeking to capture both the honest and deceitful impulses that define humanity. But Singleton probably never had any grasp of his characters to begin with. And whereas "Boyz N the Hood" was a plea for some communal soul-searching, "Baby Boy" seems more concerned with giving viewers a palatable mixture of violence, laughter, tears and sex, and sending them home with their hearts warmed.
Come to think of it, that's not called wanting your cake, and wanting to eat it, too. It's called selling out.