Riding in Cars with Boys
directed by Penny Marshall
(Columbia TriStar, 2001)

In 1988, Penny "Laverne" Marshall surprised and delighted audiences with Big. Two years later she touched hearts with Awakenings, a powerful real-life story of a doctor whose offbeat methods helped a ward full of mental patients get back their lives after a 20-year hiatus. And two years after that, she gave us A League of Their Own, a deft blend of humor and real-life drama.

But what has she done for us lately? Sadly, not much.

Riding in Cars with Boys isn't a bad film, but it's a long way from a good one. It has all the elements of a good film: serious conflict, some interesting characters, a capable cast, lots of hope and occasional moments of genuine warmth and humor.

So what's missing? Focus, mostly.

Part of Marshall's problem -- and consequently, the viewers' -- is the film's complicated narrative. It's at least two stories in one: struggling author Beverly Donofrio (Drew Barrymore), galleys in hand, is making a pilgrimage to the home of her long-lost ex-husband (Steven Zahn), whose OK she needs to have her autobiography published.

She's being driven there by their son, Jason (Adam Garcia), who serves as the film's occasional narrator. But Jason, a college student who hasn't seen his father since age 6 or so, has his own agenda: a bombshell he keeps trying to drop on his self-absorbed mom.

Most of the film, however, takes place in the deep, dark past, as mother and son flash back to the incidents which put them on the road in the first place: Beverly's pregnancy at 15; her marriage to a loving man who unfortunately loved drugs and alcohol as much as he loved his wife and son; and her flint-on-steel relationship with her father (James Woods), a local cop and much wiser man than he at first appears.

That makes Cars a film of two difficult crisscrossing journeys. And yet it might have survived, triumphed even, had Barrymore been up to the effort. Unfortunately, she misplays more scenes than she gets right: her work is unbearably superficial for the first 90 minutes, suddenly strikes just the right tone, then quickly spills over into melodrama.

Woods fares better, possibly because he's used somewhat sparingly, possibly because he's such an old pro.

His image as the overly strict father eventually melts, as he allows his character some serious development: check out the difference in his face in two scenes: 1) when he busts his own daughter for curing weed in the oven; and 2) when he picks her up near her ex-husband's seaside trailer. Woods has looks that can kill; here he has looks that can heal as well.

Granted, Cars has some funny moments: like the opening sequence, in which an 11-year-old Beverly (Mika Boreem) gives her 8-year-old sister (Celine Marget) a lesson in French kissing; or the subsequent conversation in which her father tries to convince Beverly that a bike would be a much better Christmas present than a bra.

"Pop," she says, "you can't negotiate my boobs." It's clear here who's ready for puberty and who's not.

Unfortunately, Cars is a downhill ride from there, offering an occasional upturn, but nothing that sustains life. In many ways, it's worse than a mixed bag: it's a mixed bag with a hole in that lets too much of the good stuff run out of the bottom, while the dross rises to the top.

Riding in Cars with Boys is probably my favorite film title from all of 2001, featuring one of my favorite actors of all time. But it's far from my favorite film. I guess that's obvious.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 11 January 2003

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