Jody (Tyrese Gibson), the strapping, sloe-eyed, 20-year-old protagonist of John Singleton's ambling yet impassioned Baby Boy, is, by any definition, a bum. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he's the father of two young children by two different women, but he still lives with his mother. Jobless and pleasure-seeking, with no focus on anything but the next moment, he cruises around the neighborhood in his girlfriend's car and considers it his divine right to cheat on her whenever he wants. (He refers to his conquests as ''tricks.'') His one brainstorm of employment is to steal a bunch of dresses off the back of a truck and barter them, with his ladies'-man swagger, at the local hair salon. Even when he's ''working,'' he's playing tricks.
Baby Boy is structured dramatically to echo the lackadaisical, easy-does-it chaos of Jody's existence, and while that lends the picture a certain lurching and repetitive quality, Singleton's achievement is that he stages each moment with such an intricate and painful sense of what's going on inside Jody that his haphazard days have more fullness, more life, than most movie characters' tidy arcs. Far from indifferent, Jody is boxed in by his anger, his need to inflate the most casual living-room conversation into a turbulent contest of power and pride. He is, to put it in the film's terms, the neurotically infantalized African-American urban male, yet Singleton, a decade after Boyz N the Hood, now puts the ripeness and conflict of adult experience right up there on screen. Ving Rhames, as the simmeringly contained, wised-up ex-con boyfriend of Jody's mother, is once again amazing, and Snoop Dogg, with his skinny coyote's snarl, makes a mesmerizing petty sociopath. What holds the movie together, though, is Gibson's broodingly responsive performance as a young man who refuses to grow up because it would mean he'd have to stop fighting himself.