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'BABY BOY' IS A MODERN URBAN TALE OF A YOUNG MAN'S GROWING PAINS

MOVIE Review

Baby Boy *** 1/2

Rated:R

The lowdown: A young black man struggles with life.Starring Tyrese Gibson, A.J. John-son, Omar Gooding, Ving Rhames. Directed by John Singleton, above

Opening today at area theaters.

The well-worn coming-of-age story is polished to a fresh sheen by the hands of filmmaker John Singleton in "Baby Boy," a remarkable work of pathos and passion detailing a young black man's struggles in a dysfunctional world.

The title refers to the main character, Jody, whom Singleton uses to symbolize all young black men. The handsome 20-year-old is struggling in a life that sets him two steps back for every step forward.

We're introduced to our baby boy with the film's first image - the grown Jody crying in the womb as a voice-over tells us that "a black man has been made to think of himself like a baby." If you don't believe it, think about what a black man calls his woman ("mama") or his home ("a crib").

Next, we watch Jody waiting for Yvette, his girlfriend and mother of one of his children, outside an abortion clinic. Jody, like many men his age, is led through life by his lower anatomy. He has children by two women, yet lives at home with his mother, who supports the unemployed man-child. He patiently makes detailed car models in his bedroom where one wall has a pinup of Tyra Banks and the other a large mural of Tupac Shakur (the "Baby Boy" script was reportedly written for Shakur and then shelved after his death).

Jody's mother, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), is youthful and vibrant. Attractive with a lean athlete's body, she's 36 and looking forward to living her life again - despite her adult son sleeping down the hall. When she brings her new boyfriend, Melvin (Ving Rhames), home, emotions are heightened between her overprotective son and the imposing ex-con.

"You like thugs, mom," Jody says. "Your daddy was a thug - I need a thug to handle me," she answers.

The film, the third in Singleton's "hood trilogy" following "Boyz N the Hood" and "Poetic Justice," continues his exploration of black people and the complex social issues in their lives.

"Baby Boy," then, is simply about these realistic characters: A mother trying to get her child to leave the nest; a child fighting against manhood; a young woman in love struggling with a man unable to commit; and a man fighting his violent inner demons.

Singleton's characters are all too human and no one is perfect. Jody may be downright charming and absolutely gorgeous, but he's not always likeable. He uses women for sex and doesn't know the meaning of fidelity. But he's devoted to his children, and we truly feel for him as he tries to remain faithful in the face of some sexy temptation.

Throughout the story, characters are repeatedly telling him to "be a man." Whenever he answers "I am a man," he's usually laughed at, even by his mother. It doesn't help his confidence.

The actors hold up their end of the bargain in portraying these multidimensional characters. Recording artist, MTV VJ and model Tyrese Gibson makes Jody likeable despite his flaws by giving him just the right blend of vulnerability and confusion. Johnson and Taraji P. Henson are sensitive, strong and not afraid to admit their mistakes as the women trying to do right by their families. Snoop Dogg's natural freakiness works well in his role as Rodney, Yvette's nasty ex-boyfriend who becomes violent after he's released from prison.

The extraordinary Rhames plays Melvin with quiet intensity. We're not sure what's underneath the skin of this towering "old gangster" who now runs a landscaping business. Even when he tries to offer Jody advice ("I was like you, Jody, young and dumb"), he's quite scary.

Credit Singleton for keeping the violence to a minimum and mostly off the screen. He understands the power of imagination sparked by something out of the audience's sight.

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