Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) ** 1/4
Directed by Penny Marshall. Written by Morgan Upton Ward from the book by Beverly Donofrio. Photography, Miroslav Ondricek. Editing, Richard Marks & Lawrence Jordan. Production design, Bill Groom. Music, Hans Zimmer & Heitor Pereira. Cast: Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, Adam Garcia, Cody Arens, James Woods, et al. A Columbia release. 122 minutes. PG-13
The uncertainties of ratings. My film students ask me now and then "What sort of grade is ' C+ to B-?" The answer is that many papers make me hesitate between two grades; that later, repeated readings may swing the grading to a more conclusive single grade. That an instructor is not an all-knowing judge.
It is even tougher to be a film critic. Far too many movies fall between two stools. Critics of any kind, notably those who must come up with a grade just hours away from having screened a picture, can be in a tight spot. Immediate evaluations can be unreliable. Opinions become far more valid after a second or third screening, ideally much later -- even years later. That's what makes possible lists of the 100 or 1000 Best Films.
All this to explain that my *** for "Riding" is a wobbly, un-guaranteed opinion.
The movie is an adaptation of a memoir by Beverly Donofrio, played by Drew Barrymore. A working-class girl born and raised in Wallingford, Conn., Bev is the daughter of a nice couple, a local policeman (played by James Woods) and his loving wife. We follow her from her pre-teens to age 15, and at variou ages up to 35 or so. Her story is told in numerous flashbacks and flashforwards. These can get rather fatiguing.
At 15, Bev clearly wants to becomes two things: a woman and a writer. In one of the best scenes, riding with Dad in a police-car, she comes up with what her hoped-for Christmas gift. It is not like the funny old song "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth," but a bra which is to envelop her still undeveloped chest. Dad, her pal, is horrified. But Bev, like some of her classmates, proceeds to stuff paper in strategic places.
At a school party, the naive girl and aspiring author hands the tallest jock she has a crush on a sentimental poem she wrote. The guy ridicules her to his entourage of buddies. Bev is crushed.
To her rescue comes Ray, a grungy, inarticulate, low-I.Q. and ambitionless low-life who is into drugs, but in spite (and in a sense because of) his negative aspects is genuinely sweet and oddly likable. It is the beginning of a new rapport between Bev and Ray. Not "of a beautiful friendship" - to quote "Casablanca," but of a far too sketchily developed relationship.
The relevant passages in the source-book are most simplified. So, with the flashbacks/forwards going full blast, we zig-zag in time. The next thing you know is that at age 15 Bev is pregnant. An excellent, original sequence deals with her wedding in which the sad, passive girl is defended in public by her best friend Fay (Brittany Murphy) who caps her speech with the announcement that she too is pregnant. Both girls now rejoice, hope for girls who will become best friends, like their mothers.
But while Fay gives birth to a girl, Bev has a boy (Jason, played by different actors as he ages), an is initially disappointed. Another strong sequence.
Still back-and-forthing the movie depicts the life of Bev over the years, starting with Ray's "surprise" of a new home for the couple, a horrid place in an awful backstreet. The house is just above being a tar-paper shack. And that's where Jason grows up while, at some point, his father Ray becomes a heroin addict. Bev's father was not wrong when he had deplored that "she is only 15 and her husband is a moron."
I will skip most of the zigs and the zags of the story. They are depressing when they stick to reality, not too convincing when they try to beautify ugliness. Oddly, the no-good Ray (Steve Zahn) delivers the movie's best performance. There are gaps and small, confusing details in the continuity. There are holes in the story. For instance it does not deal (save for a hint) with Bev being promiscuous and also a user of substances. Fay is sketchly shown, then just about dumped from the story. The film jumps to grown-up Jason (Andy Garcia) having gone to college where he and Fay's daughter Miranda have become an item.
In one of the picture's small, superfluous and un-cute tricks, shown at the start, we meet 35-year old Bev in presumably fashionable garb, waiting for a ride with a younger man who could be her current lover, but turns out to be Jason.
The script expectedly condenses and simplifies Ms. Donofrio's memoir, but not necessarily well, and without fleshing out some parts that need it. There is no sex, just the results of sex. There are no passages of rapport among people, but just the opposite. And the attempt to gather up loose strings in the near-finale, set in the dismal lower depths where, in squalor, live Ray and his second wife (an uncredited, horrid looking Rosie Perez) is unconvincing.
Much of the picture rests on Drew Barrymore's substantial shoulders. I confess that more than once I had trouble warming up to her, her tatooes, her persona and her acting, except in her role as the child Gertie in Spielberg's "E.T." I do admit that in her part in "Riding" she does well and while her Bev at various stages and ages is uneven, curiously, at age 26 or so, Drew does is at her best when portraying a 35-year old woman. Even so, she has a ways to go before she can equal the great Barrymores: John, Lionel, and Ethel.
If slumming is your cup of tea...