With little promotion and mostly unheralded, John Singleton’s Baby Boy had a good first week at the box office, and I hope the word is spreading that, rambling and conflicted as it is, it’s one of the most entertaining African-American comedies of manners ever made. The movie has been billed as a follow-up to Singleton’s exciting first feature, Boyz N the Hood (1991), but that was a splattery sociological melodrama while this one (although slightly disfigured by climactic violence) is a pop-psychological sex comedy. The two films overlap in their setting—South Central Los Angeles—and in their theme: what happens to boys who grow up without stabilizing fathers. In Boyz, Singleton shifted the blame to self-serving (either coldly careerist or drug-addled) mothers. A decade later, he’s more enlightened: He targets fatherless babies who grow up to be stubbornly babyish fathers. He’s sympathetic—but that only makes his critique more devastating.
Singleton lays it all out in the opening narration, quoting a theory that African-American males, in response to racism, have been accustomed to regarding themselves as children: They call their women “mama,” their closest acquaintances “boys,” and their neighborhood “the crib.” Instead of debunking this glib idea, he gives us our first glimpse of his protagonist, Jody (Tyrese Gibson), as fully grown inside a giant womb. The reality is almost more startling. Jody, who lives at home with his mama, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), in a room that is clearly the lair of a teen-age boy, has two children by two different women, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson) and Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass), both of whom have been forced to take sole responsibility for child care (not to mention earning a living wage). Jody doesn’t even drive his own car—he borrows either Yvette’s or Peanut’s. Tall and smooth-featured, he has gotten a lot of mileage out of being irresistible. When he decides to make money, he works out a scam to bribe garment workers into slipping him dresses, then smooth-talks the women in neighborhood salons into buying his Paris “co-ture.”
What throws Jody’s pampered universe into an uproar isn’t so much his relations with Yvette (whom he seems to love) or Peanut (whom he seems to love sleeping with); it’s the arrival in his mother’s house of a new boyfriend named Mel (Ving Rhames), a burly ex-con who flaunts his sexual appetites. Juanita explains to her son that “Momma gotta have a life, too”—an understandable sentiment, since she barely seems older than Jody. Mel, who now runs his own business, likes to parade around the house naked, the muscles on his bare buttocks rippling. Jody and his pal Sweet Pea (Omar Gooding) glare at this Big Daddy as he strides into the bathroom, puffing on a fat cigar and smoothly drawing a straight razor across his gleaming scalp; and Jody mutters that since Mel makes his mama happy he’ll “let the nigger breathe.” But one look at Rhames—who has never been more menacingly seductive, not even in Pulp Fiction (1994)—and you know that he could snap Baby Boy’s neck with barely the twitch of a bicep.
Jody lives in terror of being tossed from the nest: In one of Singleton’s clumsier bits of dramaturgy, it’s revealed that Jody’s older brother moved out when their mom acquired her last boyfriend and promptly got himself killed. But the wonderful thing about Baby Boy is that Mel doesn’t turn into the villain. He’s not a fully known quantity (apparently he has some neglected kids of his own and a reputation for violence against their mothers), but he and Jody have a healthily dynamic relationship: The presence of each is a check on the other’s most exploitive instincts. And when Jody needs a dad, Mel eases into the role—which in turn seems to help Jody ease into the role of a dad himself. Their barbed relationship acquires a primal, mysterious beauty.
Singleton is not above resorting to villains. When, after a bruising fight, Jody separates from Yvette, her ex-boyfriend Rodney (Snoop Dogg) emerges from prison and installs himself on her sofa, smoking dope with his cretinous buddies and refusing to budge. He’s a threat both to the woman and her neglected son, and the question “Will Jody become a man and ride to their rescue?” hangs melodramatically in the air. But Snoop Dogg is so hilariously scurvy (he’s like a grotty Mexican bandit in an old Western) that the focus shifts to the real enemy of happiness: Baby Boy himself, the man who insists on a womb of his own.
Good as it is, Baby Boy is still a tough sell. At more than two hours it’s overlong, and a few key scenes have apparently been chopped out to keep it under three. (Peanut and her little girl barely figure into the resolution; and, confusingly, Yvette discovers Jody’s cheating ways after a scene in which he manfully rejects the advances of one of her co-workers.) But one of the picture’s flaws—its repetitiveness—actually contributes to its originality. The first fight with Yvette on the stairs of the motel where she lives is merely a humdinger; the second suggests a pattern with no end in sight. And the movie’s best moments are almost subliminal. A scene in which one of Jody’s friends describes women as “unstable creatures” is preceded by one in which Yvette has hauled herself out of bed after a night of exhausting sex to pick up all her child’s toys and to vacuum. A world in which child-men can rail against the people who pick up their toys is topsy-turvy, in need of setting right.
One way that such a world can be set right is to appeal to men’s higher instincts. Another is to kill them. It’s the latter that’s featured in Baise-Moi, which translates as “Fuck Me” but in the United States has been given the evidently more appetizing title, “Rape Me.” Early on, each of the two protagonists—cute, scowly Manu (a rape victim) and tremulous Nadine (an exploited hooker)—separately kill someone. They connect, then fall into a pattern of having sex and shooting people. And that’s all, folks: An exploitation movie reduced to its grindhouse essence.
Directed by Virginie Despentes and the hardcore actress Coralie Trinh Thi, Baise-Moi features a pair of hardcore actresses in the leads, and the whole thing should really have been called not “Fuck Me” but “Fuck You.” The key line is Manu’s: “If you park in the projects you empty your car ‘cause someone’s gonna break in. I leave nothing precious in my c— for those jerks.” Well, there’s nothing precious left in this movie, either: The filmmakers have separated themselves from all the emotions of filmmaking except anger. The fucking and blowjobs are hardcore and impassive, the murders bloody and only slightly less impassive; and you watch not in a state of arousal but narcotized, your very humanity flaccid. Thanks, ladies. Now go fuck yourselves.