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