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Riding in Cars with Boys
2001 - PG-13 - 132 Mins.
Director: Penny Marshall
Producer: Julie Ansell, James L. Brooks, Laurence Mark and Richard Sakai
Written By: Morgan Upton Ward
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Sara Gilbert, Mika Boorem and Brittany Murphy
Review by: Bill King
   

I thought it was 'Riding in Cars with Girls'
Drew Barrymore has a natural talent for winning over audiences with her charm and warm-hearted persona. If she's in a movie, her mere presence is often enough to light up the theater, no pun intended. From her debut in 'E.T.' to such recent films as 'Ever After,' 'The Wedding Singer' and 'Never Been Kissed,' she has always displayed an aura of vulnerability and kindness. Occasionally, she tries something different ('Poison Ivy'), but is at her best in a movie like 'Riding in Cars with Boys'. In what has turned out to be one of her best realized movies, Barrymore shines as a struggling mother who has to deal with her unfortunate situation. A disapproving father, a slacker husband and a poor home don't make for easy drama, and the movie succeeds largely thanks to Barrymore's ability to give her character just the required mix of determination and likability, while at the same time portraying the woman's flaws and personality quirks.

The movie takes place mostly during the '60s, but there are flash forwards to the '80s allowing the audience to contrast the optimism of youth with the resignation of adulthood. In an interesting move, director Penny Marshall tells the story both through the eyes of Beverly D'Onofrio (Barrymore) and Jason (Adam Garcia), Bev's son, although Jason is the film's narrator. As a little girl, Bev was already boy-crazy and was an influence on her best friend Fay. Bev tells Fay all about French kissing, and when Bev finally leaves with her father (James Woods), she asks for a bra for Christmas, to impress a boy at school. As a teenager, Bev goes to parties to meet boys, and catches the eye of Raymond (Steve Zahn), who seems like a good guy at first but will eventually turn out to be inattentive and inconsiderate. They leave together, and at 15 years old, she becomes pregnant with Jason.

A teen mother, Bev's life begins its downward spiral. She has to watch as her friends, particularly Tina (Sara Gilbert), go to dances and enjoy themselves while she stays at home performing her new duties as a mother. Raymond has a few jobs, but he's never around, is always late and often forgets appointments. When the movie finally reveals that he's a heroin addict, Bev not only has one baby, but two. Raymond cries aloud in his bed, the agony of withdrawal taking its toll.

Throughout these ordeals, Bev seems incapable of acknowledging that she is responsible for her own mistakes. She sees everyone around her as the cause. In one painful scene, she confesses that Jason is the source for her worry. If not for him, she could complete school, go to college and not be married to a loser. She tells him this and, as an adult, Jason remembers. We see the sorrow in his eyes as he reflects on his childhood.

The movie was based on the memoirs of the real Beverly D'Onofrio (she served as co-producer for the film). As a child, Beverly displayed a talent for writing. As an adult, she took a job with a small newspaper. During her time there, Beverly writes her life story, but the publisher won't accept it without Raymond's signature, for fear of a lawsuit. The problem is, she booted him out long ago, and raised Jason on her own for years. Intercut with the flashback scenes are scenes of Bev and Jason taking the trip to Raymond's home. Neither of them has seen him since he left, so the reunion may not be a pretty one. During the trip, they reminisce about days gone by, which makes up the bulk of the movie.

On the surface, 'Riding in Cars with Boys' gets much of its credibility from Barrymore's performance. There are many other factors here, though, that lend to the film's overall effectiveness. The script, by Morgan Upton Ward, doesn't introduce foolish characters without redeeming value simply for a cheap laugh. Every character is either a good person, or is good at heart, hindered by bad choices. Steve Zahn as Raymond isn't a bad guy, but he has a tendency to allow his indulgences to take over. Towards the end of the film, when Bev and Jason finally see him again, he has grown a little wiser, and understands that he was at fault for the bad things he did. Beverly has the most to learn. She persists in the self delusion that she was a good mother, and blames everyone else for her troubles. Jason, the supposed cause of her woes, teaches her that she must take responsibility for her own actions.

'Riding in Cars with Boys' is an accomplished project. It's nothing like a previous Barrymore-is-pregnant film, 'Home Fries,' because this is an affectionate and sometimes sad story. Marshall's sure-handed direction steers clear of any possible traps for a movie like this. 'The Story of Us,' also about a troubled marriage, builds up to an emotional climax, only to undermine the conclusion in a pathetic, sloppy fallout. 'Riding in Cars with Boys' refuses to take the easy way out.

James Woods' character is another challenging aspect. Instead of disowning his grandson, he welcomes the little guy into the world, though he continues to maintain his distance from Beverly. He lets his disapproval be known, though not to the extent that he would deny the existence of his grandson. When the opportunity to make money by drying marijuana presents itself, Bev jumps on it. Left on the snowy front yard, Jason even as a child has the self posession to inform Bev's father of her misdeed.

The movie is rich in characterization. The actors hit all the right notes, and every character comes across as a real person rather than caricature or cardboard cut-out. While the trailers for the film featured scenes detailing Bev's misspent youth, perhaps to give the impression that the film was a broad comedy, 'Riding in Cars with Boys' is much better and more complicated than that.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

 
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