Stuck in Neutral
There exists a devoted audience for whom Beverly Donofrio's 1990 autobiography, Riding in Cars With Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good, is the stuff of by-the-book inspiration; such is the worship for her memoirs that in 1994 it was included in Penguin's compendium of 500 Great Books By Women, in which Donofrio sits upon the shelf alongside Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende and Diane Ackerman. It's estimable company for a welfare mother who was nearly driven mad by the very aspirations that finally helped her escape life on a literal dead-end street in middle-class Connecticut. Donofrio, who came of age even as she was raising her own child at 15, was a real-life, hardscrabble George Bailey: someone who aspired to touch the sky but could only reach the curb, a dreamer whose dreary life slowly became the stuff of mundane nightmares. A wanna-be writer whose every effort to escape to a better place--college, California, anywhere--was undone at every turn, Donofrio did indeed make good: She raised her son alone and on welfare, finally attended college at Wesleyan University, wrote a book about her tragic young life and became such a franchise that she found she could keep writing about herself without anyone minding.
It's little wonder Drew Barrymore badly wanted to play Donofrio in director Penny Marshall's sanitized adaptation of Riding in Cars With Boys; never has an actress been more in need of substance than Barrymore, whose recent filmography is full of little more than empty calories that rot the teeth and numb the mind (Charlie's Angels, Never Been Kissed, Home Fries and Titan A.E.). Barrymore appears in nearly every frame of Riding in Cars; she seizes the film and doesn't let go, to the point of strangling it to death. She pouts and giggles, rants and rages, screams and sighs until it plays like an assemblage of Oscar clips. Yes, she can act--but the film can't bear the strain of her desire to give every scene depth, meaning, gravity. That's because it isn't much a movie at all; rather, at 132 minutes, it's an overlong compendium of Oprah moments meant to move and inspire, even if, by the end, it's too exhausted with itself to offer up a single authentic tear or revelation.
Riding in Cars With Boys begins in 1961: Young Bev (played by Hearts in Atlantis' Mika Boorem) is teaching her little sister to open-mouth kiss while the cast of The Sopranos (Lorraine Bracco as Bev's mom, Vincent Pastore as her uncle) are downstairs dancing to Christmas carols. Bev's stern police-officer pop (James Woods) takes his girl for a late drive and asks her what she wants for Christmas; the precocious Bev, referencing Shakespearean tragedy and a schoolmate's less-than-ample bosom, begs for a bra. When the old man disgustedly refuses, we're transported 24 years into the future: Bev, now played by Barrymore, stands on a Manhattan street corner waiting for a ride. She clutches in her tiny paws the galleys to her soon-to-be-published autobiography, which won't reach shelves unless her ex-husband Ray (Steve Zahn) signs legal docs that give Bev the OK to talk about the smack habit that destroyed their marriage years earlier.
And so begins the long journey back home, with Bev's 20-year-old son Jason (Adam Garcia, looking older than Barrymore because he is) behind the wheel. The two speak little, but we're meant to read everything into their uncomfortable silences: Bev blames Jason's surprise appearance, when she was but 15, for holding her back; the son blames the mother, once so inattentive and selfish, for his own neuroses. They make for a glum twosome as they drive forward and look back at the wreckage.
We witness Bev and Ray's first meeting at a party, which gives way to her pregnancy, which gives way to their marriage (he proposes by insisting, "I'm shit without you"). From there it's quickly on to Jason's birth, Bev's attempts to get into college and Ray's success at torpedoing her at every turn. She's a woman with two anchors affixed to each ankle--an unwanted son she regards as a distraction and a heroin-addicted husband she barely knows. All that keeps Bev afloat is her best friend, Fay (Brittany Murphy), who literally shares Bev's pain--to the point of becoming pregnant at almost the exact same moment as Bev.
The film moves quickly through time--Jason goes from fetus to walking-talking wunderkind in mere moments and still manages to run in place. Perhaps that's to be expected in a film about a woman trapped in lower-middle-class quicksand, looked down upon by a father who thinks of her as a tramp and a mother who thinks of her as a child even when she has her own. But Marshall and screenwriter Morgan Ward (whose only other credit is 1995's woeful A Pyromaniac's Love Story) booby-trap the proceedings; they've made Donofrio, a self-proclaimed bad girl, nothing less than an angel and rendered "real life" little more than made-for-TV homily, down to the trite, hollow ending that feigns catharsis but offers little more than a shrug. It's meant to be a feel-good movie, but we feel nothing--save, maybe, relief when it's finally over.
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