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'Riding in Cars with Boys'

Buckle up. 'Riding in Cars' is a troubling trip

Friday, October 19, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Lots of movies ask us to identify with people we would avoid like the plague in real life -- mobsters, morons, maniacs. "Riding in Cars with Boys" makes it worse by forcing us to endure some people we can't avoid in real life -- family who act like anything but.

 
 
'Riding In Cars
With Boys'

RATING: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug and sexual content

STARRING: Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, James Woods

DIRECTOR: Penny Marshall

WEB SITE: www.spe.sony.com/
ridingincars/

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

Can a movie be too real for its own good? Based on a memoir by Beverly Donofrio, "Riding in Cars with Boys" relates how Donofrio (portrayed by Drew Barrymore) screwed up her life by getting pregnant at 15 and worked to overcome the obstacles threatening to torpedo her dream of going to college and becoming a writer.

Chief among them are her husband, Ray (Steve Zahn), a well-meaning dimbulb, and her father (James Woods), a cop who basically closes her out of his life after she gets pregnant. But she takes most of her resentment out on her son, Jason (played at age 6 by Cody Arens and at age 20 by Adam Garcia), who even as a child is clearly more of an adult than she is.

On the one hand, "Riding in Cars with Boys" doesn't try to sugarcoat the issue. Everyone in the movie is flawed to some degree, but screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward and director Penny Marshall allow us to feel some measure of sympathy for most of them.

Ray truly loves his son, and a scene in which they are forced to separate is wrenching, especially because we can understand why little Jason would rather go with his father. Zahn excels at giving his character a big heart to compensate for his puny brain.

Bev's dad behaves monstrously at times but reflects the mores of the times -- she gets pregnant in the mid-1960s, when society still considered an unwed pregnancy to be a stain upon both the girl and her family. When he tells her that she has ruined everything for all of them, Woods' quiet mortification cuts to the bone.

The problem is that the person who proves to be the most difficult is Bev herself. It's good that the movie lets us see her flaws. But it seldom lets us glimpse her virtues.

She's obviously persistent and smart -- smart enough, alas, to know better. It's true that the others keep messing up just when it looks like she might succeed. But she never seems to acknowledge her own complicity. She's as cold and callous as her father in many ways, and her treatment of her son is often just as unforgivable.

It's good that Barrymore tries to stretch dramatically in this role, the most adult role of her career to date. But she can't find the balance that would make us relate to Bev in a positive way.

It doesn't help that Marshall never establishes a rhythm for the film. The episodes in Bev's life follow one after another, dramatically flat and poorly paced. The movie itself is a bit too long, and some scenes are an ordeal to watch, like when Bev and her best friend, Fay (Brittany Murphy), who also got pregnant before marriage, pop pills in the back yard and space out while Jason is left to his own devices. Remind me again why we're supposed to admire this woman?

The early scenes add some humor to the mix, but it leads us to expect the rest of the movie to maintain that tone. That leads to an uncomfortable feeling when the film turns more dour later on. And in a movie where everything is such a struggle, how can the final resolutions be so easy?

This film is one bumpy ride.

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