Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Penny Marshall

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, Sara Gilbert, Adam Garcia, Lorraine Bracco, James Woods

MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, drug and sexual content)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 10/19/01

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Riding in Cars with Boys is the kind of sentimental fare that the term "chick flick" was created for. It’s about a young woman’s struggles through life, dealing mostly with her relationships with her family, friends, husband, and son. That it’s also based on the autobiography of the lead character is almost insignificant because the movie is full of the clichés that accompany the genre. And yet for all its predictability (no, I did not read the book), there is something deeper going on. We may be familiar with the story because we’ve seen it so many times, but we are familiar with the people because they ring true. I can take or leave sentimentality, but I cannot ignore when a film actually portrays at least three truthful, complex relationships.

Beverly D’Onofrio (Drew Barrymore) has just finished an autobiography and is driving with her son Jason (Adam Garcia) for a final task before it can be published. The book recalls her early childhood, as her father’s (James Woods) favorite. She has a crush on a boy, but when she is rejected, the delinquent Raymond (Steve Zahn) helps her get back at him. Soon enough, she is fifteen-years-old and pregnant. Her father is devastated, and her mother (Lorraine Bracco) insists that she be married, even though it goes against Beverly’s initial plans. Raymond promises to love Beverly like no one else could, and after their marriage, they move into public housing and a little boy enters their lives.

Beverly, and those who know her for that matter, had big plans for her life until this point, so a lot of the movie revolves around the way in which events in her life disappoint her and others. Beverly is a strange character to place in the lead. Yes, the struggles she goes through make her sympathetic, but as a person, she has a few character flaws that make it hard to completely sympathize with her. She is demanding, restrictive, and selfish. She is terrible to her son, although considering how her father treated her, it’s understandable. You know how you watch a movie about a dysfunctional family with kids, and you think to yourself, "How will those kids turn out?" Well, Riding in Cars does something interesting. Between the sequences of Beverly growing up is intercut the mother and son trip. What’s important about these scenes is that we get a different perspective—the son’s. We see exactly what a lifetime of living in a house like that can lead to.

It’s this perspective that gives the movie its heart. A movie about a woman like Beverly would be difficult to sit through, because she is utterly convinced that she is right, even though we can tell she is usually overlooking something (or someone). She spouts little diatribes about how "one day can ruin your life" to her son, without even considering what impact that must have him. She even says ironic things like, "I’m twenty-two. That’s almost thirty... I wish I was dumb," but still Beverly feels we should care for her (if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have written a book about her life). So in adding scenes that could not be in the book, screenwriter Morgan Ward may draw attacks from the novel’s fans but has given the story an outside perspective—like ours.

The other major relationships come from one of the other men in Beverly’s life. Raymond provides not only another obstacle for Beverly to get past, but also another great performance for Steve Zahn, who is very slowly becoming a solid character actor. As Raymond, Zahn is sympathetic and understandable. He also solidifies the husband/wife relationship and, later in the movie, gives the father/son relationship a heartbreaking edge.

The other relationships fare worse because of the span of the story. There isn’t a lot of time to develop all of these characters, and so other important relationships seem incomplete or nonexistent. Beverly’s relationship with her parents is oddly given little time, considering how important they are to her shaping as a person. Her mother becomes the person who helps her when she is overwhelmed with her pregnancy and early child-rearing and then disappears. The father/daughter relationship is obviously vital, and James Woods does what he can with comparatively small screentime (which, coincidentally, is a lot). The movie ends with a note of forgiveness but not completely. Someone is forgetting to say something to the other person, and it concludes just how incomplete some of these relationships feel.

The movie works, though, and whatever sentimentality it goes for is actually charming. Barrymore holds the whole thing together (even if she doesn’t look fifteen). As a fully-realized drama, Riding in Cars with Boys falls short of the mark, but as light-hearted, sentimental fare with truthful and complex undertones, it’s quite successful.

Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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