TOO MANY POTHOLES IN RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS
BY HEIDI FRANSEN
Get ready for a bumpy ride because Riding in Cars with Boys, a flaky adaptation of Beverly D'Onofrio's heartwarming 1990 memoir, drives through countless potholes. Unfortunately, stellar performances by Drew Barrymore and Steve Zahn cannot compensate for the lackluster script that steers the cast and the audience down a dead-end street.
Set in 1965 suburban Connecticut, Riding recounts the story of Bev (Barrymore), an aspiring teenager whose life takes a U-turn when she gets pregnant by lovable loafer Ray Hasek (Zahn). Bev's tough cop dad (James Woods) forces her to marry Ray, who degenerates into a lowlife heroin addict. After booting Ray out of their dreary house, the disillusioned and resentful Bev struggles to raise her inconvenient son, Jason, while dusting off her dreams of attending college and pursuing a writing career.
Screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward's half-baked script attempts a flashback framework, jumping between the mid-1960s, when Bev discovers motherhood, and 1986, when Bev and Jason seek out the long-absent Ray for his consent to publish her autobiography. However, this before-and-after structure runs out of gas and breaks down like a 1977 Oldsmobile Barracuda. Ward omits nearly twelve years of Bev's story, depriving the audience of watching Bev's scholastic and occupational achievements and Jason's adolescence. Basically, Ward scraps the part of D'Onofrio's memoir that contains the most movie potential, leaving a huge, unexplained pothole in the screenplay.
Although Barrymore delivers an impressive performance, she is severely limited by Ward's anti-heroic, one-dimensional characterization of Bev. The viewer spends the entire movie stuck in a traffic jam, waiting for Bev's triumphant transformation from self-pitying single mom into college-educated novelist. However, Bev never overcomes her pouty bitterness. While getting high with her best bud, Fay, the scornful Bev whines about the burden of motherhood, confessing that she despises Jason for detouring her life. Meanwhile, the impressionable little Jason is frolicking around within earshot of Bev's shocking complaints. At the end of the movie, when Bev and Jason finally arrive at Ray's trashy trailer house, Bev's only concern is securing Ray's consent to publish her book. Jason's climatic encounter with the father he hasn't seen in twelve years completely escapes the egocentric Bev, who still has a massive chip on her shoulder. Gosh, Bev, just get over it!
Since Ward doesn't illustrate Bev's inspiring challenge to manage college, raise her teen son, or write her own book, he prevents Bev from evolving into an admirable or sympathetic person. Instead, the toil Bev must have invested in her education is reduced to a mere assumption, and her newly authored book seems completely undeserved. The fact that Jason narrates the movie and not Bev also inhibits Bev's evolution into a heroic character. Beverly D'Onofrio wrote her own memoir, so logically she should narrate the movie of her memoir, but Ward foolishly gives the car keys to Jason.
Director Penny Marshall's ill-timed injections of humor make Bev's character even more shallow and dislikeable. Repeatedly, Marshall reduces to tacky comedy the moments when Bev could mature and grow. When the drug-dependent Ray is writhing on the bed from heroin withdrawal, Bev pops into little Jason's room to dance the hokey pokey. Then, when the unsupervised Jason nearly drowns in a hot tub, Bev almost comes to his rescue, absent-mindedly dropping him back in the water. Oh, that disdainful but occasionally wacky Bev!
Steve Zahn's performance as the endearing delinquent Ray is the movie's saving grace. Zahn beautifully captures Ray's empty-headedness without stooping to base stupidity. Zahn's slight stutter and thoughtful pauses between words make magic out of the most simple lines of dialogue. When Zahn's character proposes to Bev, he says, "I love you. A lot." Zahn's heartbeat of a pause between the two sentences effectively demonstrates Ray's sincerity, and Bev cannot refuse to go along for the ride.
Unlike with Bev's character, Ward and Marshall beautifully craft Ray into an extremely sympathetic one. In the emotionally intense scene when Ray tells Bev about his heroin addiction, he has to read aloud a confession letter. Here, Marshall successfully translates Ray's internal struggle outward, as Ray's dependence on the letter's speech mimics his dependence on heroin. When Ray reappears at the end of the movie, his character development is complete: he's scruffy and idle, living in a dump with a termagant wife. Yet Ray is still the good-natured guy he's always been, and the hug he shares with Jason is truly tear jerking.
The costumes and props, designed by Cynthia Flynt, reflect the period of the movie so well that subtitled dates aren't necessary. In the 1960s, Bev and her gal pals cruise around in a vintage Cadillac, the wind mussing up their beehive hair-dos. In 1970, Ray grows a moustache and Bev sports bell-bottoms and long braids. However, Ward misses a big opportunity to incorporate the slang of the era into the script's dialogue. When the spunky teen Bev attends a boy-girl party, Ward fails to creatively distinguish the period via popular mid-60s phraseology. The unsurprisingly arrogant football players call Bev a "pathetic loser," a common put-down used in several recent teen flicks, including the movie titled Loser, which hit theaters in summer 2000. Surely mid-60s name-calling was more interesting than Ward's dialogue suggests. The music selection also falls short of its potential, sticking to the same tunes that have appeared on oodles of movie soundtracks, such as Sonny and Cher's "I've Got You Babe" and Cindy Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
The recreation of Wallingford, Connecticut, where Beverly D'Onofrio grew up, is a top-notch depiction of mid 1960s suburban life and one of Riding's better qualities. Bev's childhood home has a genuine homespun feel, and the dingy house she moves into with Ray feels cheap, symbolic of Bev's view that she has been shortchanged. Also symbolic is the circular shape of Bev and Ray's neighborhood; her life is just one continuous cycle of diaper changes, arguments, and letdowns. Poor Bev is driving in circles again.
Time to add Riding in Cars with Boys to the long list of movies that might have been great. Too bad Ward didn't pull over and ask for directions.