The man-child in the film, Jody (R&B singer Tyrese Gibson), is 20 years old, still lives with his 36-year-old single mother, has two babies by different young women, no job and no inclination to change a thing. When his mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson) gets involved with a new man, Melvin (Ving Rhames), Jody feels pressured to move out. Meanwhile, his volatile relationship with the mother of his second child, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), hits a wall when she demands he commit to their relationship. When her ex-boyfriend Rodney, a thug played with gangster credibility by Rapper Snoop Dog, returns from prison things taken a violent turn.
There's some good work in "Baby Boy." Sweet Pea, played with amazing energy by Omar Gooding, the younger brother of actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., star of Singleton's debut film "Boyz N The Hood," is exceptional as Jody's volatile best friend. Rhames is menacing as Melvin, and Henson is funny, sexy and vulnerable when not engaged in some overwrought bit of melodrama. Gibson debuts in a role originally meant for the late Tupac Shakur. While his range is limited, his presence is arresting.
But more often than not, "Baby Boy" treads familiar ground. It's full of standard cliches that have plagued black cinema for decades: the misogyny, the indiscriminate violence, the convoluted street wisdom and the ubiquitous sense of fatalism -- all themes that have been thoroughly overplayed in the black films of the '90s, not unlike the platform shoes and pimps of the blaxploitation era. The film is visually unremarkable. The dialogue is self-consciously urban, and the score/soundtrack is calculated for target markets. Still, "Baby Boy" speaks fairly frankly to a sad truth about a part of a community that the writer/director knows well. Starring Tyrese Gibson, Omar Gooding, A.J. Johnson, Taraji P. Henson, Snoop Dogg, Tamara LaSeon Bass and Ving Rhames. Written, Produced and Directed by John Singleton. A Columbia Release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and some drug use. Running time: 129 min.