Riding In Cars With Boys

on October 19, 2001 by Bridget Byrne
   Like the main character it depicts, "Riding in Cars With Boys" is willfully into itself and often gives off the wrong vibes. It knows all about the odd curves life throws than can made good times bad in a moment and humor bubble up in the heart of tragedy. But the problem is it's neither as much fun as it could be, nor as emotionally affecting. It's just an overblown telling of a small, touching story about one woman's personal journey towards adulthood--unique, it is true, but not really more or less fascinating to strangers than many another tale of learning to compromise and cope while keeping your dreams alive.

   Director Penny Marshall hasn't managed to made this overlong movie--adapted from writer Beverly Donofrio's memoir--connect with those strangers, the movie audience. The film is an uncomfortable combination of trite psychological insight, cautionary tale, touchy-feely sentiment and comedy, without enough wit and wisdom to coat over the structural cracks.

   Drew Barrymore, who portrays Beverly from self-indulgent pregnant teen to self-absorbed 35-year-old, is, as usual, a warm on screen-presence who's amusing, charming and appealing to watch. She's not afraid of the character's flaws--the selfish, the foolish, etc.--that lead this child-mother to often think and act wrongly for what she believes are the right reasons. Trapped in a loveless marriage, her brightness fettered by circumstance, her dreams of a life of college rather than of the kitchen and the playpen stifled by her own lack of responsibility and the mores of the '60s, Bev refuses to settle for being less than special. Sometimes her goals seem admirable, sometimes annoyingly egocentric. Barrymore seems to clearly understand all the dimensions of the woman she's playing, but the structure of the script doesn't allow us to see that whole picture. So Beverly remains someone we'd probably like a lot if we really, really knew her but, as it is, seems just a neighbor whose personal life is feced off, beyond our immediate sympathy.

   The "growing up" phase--which takes many years--is framed by the a car journey Beverly and her now adult son, Jason, take to try to persuade Bev's ex, the boy's dad, to sign on the dotted line so her biographical book can be published without fear of legal reprisal. It's an awkward bracket that tries but fails to tie up the package in that traditional presentation bow mainstream Hollywood movies love.

   The whole bag of tricks is played, with costumes, sets and nostalgic music deployed to evoke the assortment of eras depicted. But fashions in earrings and Sonny and Cher songs don't made for believability. Beneath the hairstyles and the clothes, the actors themselves do better on their own revealing the passage of time. It's not the superficial that tells the truth, it's what's within.

   Barrymore's task is helped by Steve Zahn's performance as Ray, her dropout dopey husband, but he too is tricked by the script. He makes a good stab at suggesting what it was like for Bev to try to make a life with someone who's not all there for her emotionally or practically, while retaining some of our sympathy for Ray's own failings. But it's always much too obvious that this is Bev's take on life, so when it comes to the other actors it's essentially, hey, do your stuff, then get out of here.

   The numerous little boys who play Bev and Ray's son in various stages of childhood have much greater and cuter on-screen impact than Adam Garcia stuck in the thankless adult role struggling to link us up with the legacy of his topsy-turvy childhood. Starring Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, Adam Garcia, Lorraine Bracco and James Woods. Directed by Penny Marshall. Written by Morgan Upton Ward. Produced by James L. Brooks, Julie Ansell, Richard Sakai, Sara Colleton and Laurence Mark. A Columbia release. Comedy/Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, drug and sexual content. Running time: 122 min

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