She did everything wrong, but got everything right.
Disclaimer: This is not my kind of movie. I had zero desire to see Riding In Cars With Boys in the theater, and zero desire to see it on DVD. Nevertheless, I requested the review assignment because my wife had been hounding me since well before the movie's release to go see it. (Note to the single guys: You always, always want to keep your wife happy. Especially when she's pregnant. Life can be worse than death living with an unhappy wife.) When the screener arrived, I asked her to watch it for me and write notes about it. When I got home from work the day she watched, I inquired what she thought. This may be a direct quote: "Oh, it was all right," said with a heavy note of indecision that could sink the QE2. When she wasn't forthcoming with the notes, I watched it with her on a Saturday night when the choices on cable were between some crappy reality show on MTV and Beverly Hills Cop II on TNN. A direct quote: "I hated it when I had to watch it, what makes you think I'd want to watch it again when I don't have to?" I say many things in italics.
Facts of the Case
Beverly Donofrio has always been obsessed with boys. This is established in a scenes when she's ten years old, begging her dad to buy her a bra for Christmas. We catch up with her at fifteen (now played by Drew Barrymore), obsessed with the captain of the high school football team. At a party, she tries to get him to read her heartfelt poetry, but he mocks her. That's when she meets Ray (Steve Zahn), who likes her because she's intelligent. The two start dating, and she winds up getting pregnant. In the history of things, I guess this was after sex but before Trojan ads were on TV. Like you did back then, Bev and Ray get married, move into public housing, and ruin their lives and their son's life. Well, that last part took years and excruciating minutes of screen time, but eventually everything works out all right because Bev writes a book! And Ray grants her the right to publish it! And it was turned into this movie!
I love the blurbs on DVD cases, especially when the movie was released by Columbia. This one has two: "Thumbs Up!" attributed to the ubiquitous Roger Ebert, who in his print review gave it three stars. They would've said "Two Thumbs Up!" if Richard Roeper liked it too, and it's my guess that he didn't. The other blurb, on the back of the case, says "Wonderfully Acted!" This one is attributed to Richard Schickel of Time Magazine. See, here's the thing. I've searched any which way at the Time website, and I can't find a review of Riding In Cars With Boys anywhere. I'm too lazy to go the library or a dentist's office to find back issues to check for myself, and I'm not accusing anyone of anything, but it makes you wonder…
Mr. Schickel, if he did indeed say that, touched on the one good thing about Riding In Cars With Boys: the acting. The best of the lot are Lorraine Bracco and James Woods as Bev's parents. Bracco is easily identified as the tough Italian woman after her roles in GoodFellas and The Sopranos. I also remember her from the completely forgettable Medicine Man with Sean Connery. She doesn't get enough screen time, but for me she was one of the highlights of the film. I think James Woods should devote the rest of his career to playing the father of messed-up teenaged girls, after this movie and The Virgin Suicides, because he's quite convincing. As for the rest, Brittany Murphy (Girl, Interrupted, Don't Say A Word) is as watchable as always; she's just one of the reasons Clueless is one of my guilty pleasures. She plays Bev's best friend who goes through the same trials of being a young, unfit mother. If you look carefully, you might see Sara Gilbert (forever identified as Darlene from Roseanne) as Bev's only high school friend who isn't a loser and David Moscow (the age-appropriate version of Tom Hanks in Big) as one of Ray's loser friends.
The leads, Drew Barrymore and Steve Zahn, are what make the movie everything it should be but isn't. Drew Barrymore is tasked with following Bev Donofrio from 15 to 35, but only succeeds at 22. Maybe that's just me, because give or take a week we're the same age. If I shaved the goatee and lost about 20 pounds, I could probably pass for myself at 18, but no way could I pull off 15. She can't either—the only thing that changes is her wig. Other than the complete lack of suspension of disbelief, she works admirably. To her credit, she does nail acting like a teenager even if she doesn't look like one. The role seems like it would ask for a wide range of emotions, but it is fairly limited it scope, which she matches. She says in the commentary that she gave up her life for the movie, and her dedication shows. Pity the movie doesn't match her enthusiasm. I really liked Steve Zahn in Steven Soderbergh's Out Of Sight. He played a junkie loser there, and was perfect. He plays a junkie loser here too, but tries to put emotional edges on it. He's a fine comedic actor, but emotional edges just aren't his bag o' dope.
Riding In Cars With Boys failed to engage my interest for at least two reasons. One, I watch films for two reasons: to have fun and/or to come away with some sort of artistic appreciation. Riding In Cars With Boys provided neither. It's too depressing to be fun, and let's face it, Penny Marshall isn't Stanley Kubrick. In the film's second act, when Bev's life is really in the crapper, it tries to liven the mood, but there's too much darkness in the background to give in. One scene in particular shows Bev trying to take care of Ray as he's going cold turkey from heroin (which reminded me of time after college that I tried to kick my Mountain Dew addiction). While he's screaming in the background, Bev tries to distract her son with a lively song-and-dance number. Um, and this is supposed to be a lighthearted moment? Two, it focuses on all the wrong areas of Bev's life to generate any interest in the feel-good ending. We see her untimely pregnancy, her ill-fated marriage, and her poor attempts at being a single mother after she kicks Ray to the curb, but it unwisely cuts off there. In the "present-day" scenes from 1986, as the 35-year-old Bev is trying to get Ray to sign a release to allow her to publish her book, we learn that in the meantime Bev moved to New York and works for a newspaper (and I learned for the trivia listing at the IMDb that she also earned a Masters Degree). How? Why? Shouldn't this movie celebrate her successes, not dwell on her failures? As much as I disliked the rest of the film, I was left with an "And then?" feeling when it left the past and stayed its focus on the present. It's like if the beginning of Saving Private Ryan had shown the horrors of the D-Day landing at Normandy, then cut to the Allied victory without showing the intermediary kicking of Nazi butt.
Riding In Cars With Boys is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. You'd think it was shot in the 1980s for the amount of grain that is visible in every scene. Large areas of color show shimmer, courtesy the low 5.20Mbps average video bitrate. Edge enhancement, while not as distracting as on some discs, is rampant and is visible in very nearly every scene. Colors are subdued, maybe even a bit dark, but are natural enough. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, but it might as well be stereo, though that's fine since it's primarily a talkie. I heard nary a peep from the rear channels or from the subwoofer, though dialogue and music are both clear, distinct and free of noise.
Extra features consist of a commentary track, a handful of featurettes, an HBO "making-of" featurette, a trailer gallery, and cast and crew filmographies. Drew Barrymore recorded her first DVD commentary track for Riding In Cars With Boys. For a freshman effort, it's quite impressive. In fact, I'd say I enjoyed watching the film with her commentary more than just watching the movie. She had a lot of passion for this project, and it's refreshing to hear her enthusiasm, especially in the prepared, articulate manner in which she speaks. The four featurettes add up to 13 minutes. "Drew's Trailer Tour" is Drew Barrymore showing us around her trailer (very non-plush for such a big star!) at the things she used to help prepare herself mentally and emotionally for the role. "Bev and Ray's House: Recreating Reality" is production designer Bill Groom showing us around the set used to film the tract housing where the struggling family lived. I found this featurette especially cool, because it's rare that you get to see how these sets are constructed—the walls and ceilings could be moved on tracks to give just enough extra room for the camera crew. "The Cars" is one of the production people showing James Woods around the car storage area. "Beverly and Jason: Sons and Lovers" is the longest of the four, and shows the real Beverly Donofrio and her son Jason talking about their life story and their thoughts on seeing it transformed into a film. The HBO special is around 22 minutes long, and includes backstage footage and interviews similar to that in the featurettes, though in more in-depth fashion. Trailers are included for Riding In Cars With Boys as well as Charlie's Angels and A League of Their Own.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One last negative comment before I wrap up. Penny Marshall is an accomplished filmmaker, and has made some fun movies—I particularly enjoy Big, and this DVD reminds me just how much that one deserved a special edition. However, I was distracted at times by the movie's editing. I know that sometimes continuity can't be achieved, and shots won't always line up, but there were several instances where cuts were rather jarring. It annoyed me particularly in the 1986 scenes as Bev and Jason are driving down the highway, looking for all the world from the interior shots like they're going about 25MPH, yet in the exteriors they're driving a respectable 55MPH. Stuff like that shouldn't pull you out of a movie, and when it does it means one of a couple things: either the gaffes are that big, or the movie is dull enough to magnify them.
If female-oriented dramas are your bag, you might want to give Riding In Cars With Boys a rental. Be forewarned, though, that the female in my life didn't care for it much, and this is the kind of movie she enjoys. Columbia continues to underwhelm with their non-Superbit titles, giving us a video transfer that is mediocre at best, though the extra content is more enjoyable than the film itself.
Columbia is guilty of a barely acceptable DVD presentation. Penny Marshall is guilty of a barely tolerable film. Drew Barrymore is let off with a warning that this shows she really can do better than most her films suggest.
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• Commentary by Drew Barrymore
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