Years ago, movies like this were called “women’s pictures” or “three-handkerchief weepers,” and often as not featured Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck suffering stoically for one reason or another. The current model (sometimes degradingly termed a “chick flick”) differs very little. There’s a tendency to be a little less glamorous, and of course the stars have changed, but every so often, this often-vilified form of movie produces something of genuine worth. And that happens to be the case with Penny Marshall’s Riding in Cars with Boys, which is surprisingly free from the sort of feel-good gooeyness the name Penny Marshall might conjure, and which never descends to the level of assaulting the viewer’s tear-ducts with pointless manipulation. In fact, Riding in Cars with Boys is fairly hard-edged and far from the Valentine to its main character that might be expected, given that it’s adapted from Beverly D’Onofrio’s first-person autobiographical work. The film immediately distances itself from its literary parent by changing the point of view from Beverly to her adult son, Jason (Adam Garcia, Coyote Ugly). This is an excellent move on the part of the filmmakers. No longer is it just Beverly’s story from her point of view — a point of view that invariably presents her as a much put-upon victim. Her take is that she was misunderstood by her parents, who drove her to marry the boy (Steve Zahn, Joy Ride) who impregnated her, thereby destroying her dreams and ambitions, trapping her in a bad marriage with a son she didn’t want, etc. Moving the story to Jason’s point of view offers a very different picture of Beverly, and a much less flattering one. While the character is allowed to remain essentially sympathetic, she is not allowed to effectively blame everyone else for her misfortunes. Instead, it becomes the story of a woman whose great tragedy lies in the fact that she will not accept her own very real responsibility for her situation. Nearly everything that is wrong with her life is her own doing. The film points this out with unerring accuracy, but the character herself is never able to understand it, preferring to continue to think of herself as the victim who finally made it by getting her story into print as a book. There are multiple ironies here. Without her “miserable” life, there would have been no story. Without the help of both her son and her heroin-addicted ex-husband, there would be no book. But for Beverly, it’s first and foremost all about her and about what “would have happened, if only …” The truth, of course, is that neither she nor anyone else can say what would have happened had her father (James Woods) bought her that bra when she asked for it, or if she hadn’t been rejected by the popular jock and ended up with the man she allows herself to be forced to marry, etc. What keeps the character sympathetic is that this is a game we’ve all played at some time in our lives, so her denial is familiar to us. It also helps that Drew Barrymore here gives a beautifully nuanced performance for a change. It’s a performance I, frankly, didn’t believe was in her. Even more surprising is Steve Zahn, who takes his standard comedy persona and adds a layer of pathetic and tragic reality to it. If anything, Zahn’s portrayal of Ray is the true heart of the film. Penny Marshall directs the film in a calmly straightforward manner that, for once, doesn’t bludgeon the viewer over the head to make sure he or she “gets it.” In fact, one of the most human and sad aspects of the movie — involving Jason loosing a baby tooth — is so underplayed and subtle in its handing that it could very well go unnoticed by a portion of the audience. Marshall’s evocation of the film’s various periods is also well-achieved. The movie may slightly outstay its welcome, but it’s a lot more thoughtful and relevant than expected — and a lot better.
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