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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "Riding In Cars With Boys"


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Drew Barrymore
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The irony of the movie, Riding in Cars with Boys, is that the people who are experienced at making films about growing up, the human condition, and dysfunctional relationships, did such a terrible job at this one. And the one person who has had no experience with such topics in film did such a good job.

The movie follows the real-life story of Beverly D'Onofrio, who, at the age of 15, gets pregnant and has a child in 1968. Faced with the ruined dreams of going to college and having a writing career, she concedes to her father's wishes, who insists she marries to avoid embarrassing the family. After going through a long and turbulent marriage with the drug-addicted father, Raymond, played by Steve Zahn, she eventually decides to leave him so she can make a life for herself. The movie is basically a series of back-and-forth time-jumps between the present day and memories of her past. As it develops - or so it is intended - we are supposed to have a better appreciation and sympathy for her present-day circumstances.

The problem is, the movie doesn't succeed at doing this.

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As the title suggests, the main character, Beverly, played by Drew Barrymore, is boy-crazy. So, you'd expect this theme to be a persistent characteristic in her personality, not to mention a flaw that continually gets her into trouble. But, aside from a couple of introductory scenes typical of any American teenage girl, the notion that Beverly is "boy-crazy" is dropped. Instead, we are given a profile of a person who takes no responsibility for herself, continually blames others for her problems, and never comes to terms with her shortcomings. For all her problems, she blames her husband, her son (whom she wanted to be a girl), and her father, played by James Woods.

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Little events are interspersed here and there in attempts to establish depth and secondary character profiles, all with a backdrop of her failed attempts at getting into college. But none of the characters are neither deep nor plausible. For example, along with being boy-crazy we are expected to believe that Beverly is unusually brilliant and has a knack for writing. Yet, with the exception of two very understated scenes that involve her reading letters she wrote in other contexts, there is little evidence of intellect, let alone brilliance. She has no profound observations, although the script does have a few good one-liners, such as, "I'm 22, and I still haven't accepted that this is my life." This, at a moment when we, the audience, have been waiting patiently for her to realize this and mark a turning point. Instead, she goes back into her shack of a home on a dead-end street and continues with a life (and a movie) that essentially go nowhere.

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Based on the book of personal memoirs by the real Beverly D'Onofrio, but heavily rewritten by screenwriters through multiple drafts that were reportedly very contentious, the movie is a classic example of what goes wrong when you rule by committee: everyone gets their ideas in, but none are fully developed.

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The movie was directed by Penny Marshall, who also did a couple of winners along the same genre, such as "Big" and "League of their Own", and produced by James Brooks, who also produced "Big", as well as other similarly-theme classics like "Terms of Endearment", "Broadcast News", and a plethora of other movie-favorite of mine. So, it's no surprise that "Riding in Cars" tries to follow the same formula of emotionally-gripping and multi-dimensional character studies, laced with profound life observations, and all compiled in a neatly-told story of the triumph over adversity and dysfunctional relationships. Even in those other films where the characters may not necessarily dispose of their self-destructive behaviors, the insight we are given into them allows us to feel sympathy, and through it all, forgive them. After all, things will still work out ok..

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Because it was evident that this was the attempt - and a failed one - I found myself pining for "Terms of Endearment" again. In fact, "Terms" was so much more effective than "Riding in Cars", that I just might rent that movie again just to fulfill the emptiness that "Riding in Cars" left in me.

All that said, I must give credit to Drew Barrymore, who really shined through, especially given the extremely challenging "character profile" roles she took on. If you can isolate certain scenes in such a way that they aren't strung together in a movie, one can easily see her talent. I wouldn't have guessed it of her, and the fact that she did so well given such a poor script and other adversities, I eagerly await seeing her again in deeper and more fleshed-out roles.

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