"He got a Oedipus complex!" exclaims a streetwise character in the middle of "Baby Boy," and that sums up the plot in a sentence. Sophocles should get a screenplay credit for John Singleton's new movie - or maybe Sigmund Freud, who gave modern resonance to the ancient tale of a man who murders his father, marries his mother, and slowly realizes the horror of his life.
Things are a little less grim in "Baby Boy," but not much. Set in the African-American neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, the story centers on a young man named Jody who lives with his 36-year-old mother and her new boyfriend, an ex-con who claims to have mended his ways. Jody also has two girlfriends, two infants being raised by those girlfriends, and two questionable friends - one a rambunctious companion, the other a jailbird with a dangerous streak.
The movie begins on an intellectual note, stating a psychologist's theory that years of racism and oppression have made many black men see themselves as overgrown children rather than genuine adults. This gives us a clue to Jody's way of life and kicks off the Oedipus theme that gallops through the rest of the story. Sometimes it's clumsy, as when Jody and his ex-con "father" start an intense physical rivalry, and sometimes it's more subtle, as when Jody's menacing friend becomes another jealous rival.
Singleton launched his filmmaking career with "Boyz N the Hood" a decade ago. It was set in the same L.A. environment, and it was razor sharp in its depiction of rough-and-tumble youths struggling to survive in a rough-and-tumble world.
Singleton has fared less well with more recent offerings like "Rosewood" and "Higher Learning," although his commitment to making socially serious films has been commendable even when the movies themselves didn't pan out.
"Baby Boy" is a touch too ambitious for its own good, but it has enough assets to stay watchable even when its characters wear thin and its running time (an overlong 132 minutes) has you checking your watch. Singleton possesses a keen eye for details of life in the 'hood, and his instinct for casting is first rate. Tyrese Gibson pulls off the difficult feat of making Jody likable and aggravating at the same time. A.J. Johnson does much the same as his mother, and Taraji P. Henson and Tamara LaSeon Bass are excellent as the girlfriends.
Best of all is Ving Rhames as the two-time loser who turns out to be a more complex character than anybody recognizes - he's the one who notices the Oedipus overtones in this domestic drama - and Omar Gooding makes the most of his small role as a best friend. Also strong is rap star Snoop Dogg as Jody's younger rival.
"Baby Boy" breaks little new ground, and the climax is less compelling than it should be. It's always lively, though, and it reminds us how well Singleton knows the harrowing terrain he's explored in his best movies, including this one.
Rated R; contains graphic sex, violence, and foul language.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor