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Review: 'Slums of Beverly Hills' on-target with comic realism


August 23, 1998
Web posted at: 10:24 a.m. EDT (1424 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- First-time writer/director Tamara Jenkins' "Slums of Beverly Hills" is far and away the most unfortunately titled film so far this year. Nine times out of 10, any movie that squeezes "Beverly Hills" into its moniker focuses on such forcefully humorous sights as poodles wearing designer dog suits and preschoolers getting expensive facials just beyond those forbidding hedges. And the laffs just keep on comin'.

Slums of Beverly Hills," however, is the best-written comedy I've seen since "The Opposite of Sex" ... if you're interested in richly drawn characters, anyway. Jenkins ultimately doesn't lead her cast (or her audience) towards a worthy payoff, but the trip getting there is unexpected, and, generally speaking, a whole lot of fun. I really hope people will get out and see this one. A lot of comic filmmakers manage to garner a cult by displaying a far weaker grasp of the human condition than Jenkins shows here. In other words, she's smarter than they are, and isn't afraid to admit it.

I hope I'm not scaring anybody away by using the word "smart." Nobody's referencing Italian poets. This is smart with its sights satirically lowered, all the way down to a family that gets excited when they actually move into an apartment that sports orange shag carpeting. The movie is set in 1976, where we follow the adventures of Vivian Abramowitz (the wonderfully harried Natasha Lyonne), a teen-ager who, as the film begins, is growing alarmed by her increasingly expanding bosom.

Her divorced father, Murray (Alan Arkin, in top, mid-'70s form) is a lowly car salesman who drags his family around in the dead of night, moving from one cheap apartment complex to another. He's trying to stay one step ahead of the landlords and bill collectors, so, at first, you think Murray is just a loser schmuck with no scruples.

As the story continues, though, we discover the desperate nature of his compulsions. He loves his kids, improvising a life that'll give them the things that he isn't really capable of providing. As the oldest of his two sons (David Krumholtz, who's very funny) points out, other people live their lives like this, so why shouldn't the Abramowitzes? Desert nomads, for instance, do a lot of nighttime moving.

Vivian's experiences drive the story, with her comically off-kilter obsessions with her body and developing sexuality serving as the basis for a lot of the humor. This is one of the most blunt, unromanticized coming-of-age movies I've ever seen. Vivian forever bitches about the size of her breasts, and, though it sounds a lot cheaper than Jenkins makes it, her wrestling with them provides a number of cringing laughs.

Especially hilarious is the scene (set in a Sizzler steakhouse; the lower middle-class touches are dead-on) in which Murray forces Vivian, who's wearing a halter-top, to go in the bathroom and put on a bra. She argues, quite rightly, that this will look ridiculous, but she finally relents. When she returns to their table, the bra/halter combo looks like some kind of therapeutic breast harness.

This bodily fixation comes to a head when a free-spirited, drug-abusing cousin (Marisa Tomei) moves in with the family -- courtesy of very important rent money from her father -- and starts lackadaisically attending nursing school. I realize I'm pointing out that everybody in the cast is great, but Tomei hasn't been this good in years. There's an underlying level of sadness to her performance that somehow never manages to get mawkish.

Another sexually shaded comic highlight comes when Tomei and Lyonne (whose character, until this point, is virtually played like a teen-age Selma Diamond) break into a spontaneous dance that features Tomei's vibrator as a sort of stage prop. The scene, like much of the better moments in the film, walks a thin line between comedy and outward embarrassment, but it's a very real line to be walking. This is where Jenkins the director shows flashes of knowing exactly what she's doing, how far she wants to take the characters before she pulls back. Her instincts as a director, unfortunately, aren't as consistently on the money as her writing. I do feel, though, that that will come in time.

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The supporting cast is also good. Kevin Corrigan, fast becoming the new Steve Buscemi, has several funny scenes as an amorous (though Charles Manson obsessed) pot-dealing neighbor who's after Vivian and her blossoming body. Corrigan plays bemused better than anybody I can think of. He never, ever seems to know what's going on, but he keeps plugging away, hoping to get something out of whatever it is that he currently can't understand.

Krumholtz, as I've already said, is also a gas. You haven't lived until you've seen his stoned, underwear-clad impersonation of Sinatra singing "Luck Be a Lady." (When people take their clothes off in this movie, with the exception of the taut Tomei, they really look like people who've taken they're clothes off. Their unashamed flabbiness anchors them in the same world we inhabit.)

So it's not perfect, but "Slums of Beverly Hills" is the real thing. Jenkins speaks with a self-specific voice that deserves our attention, regardless of the occasional miscues. Thankfully, real life has once again entered the comic forum.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" could disconcert a lot of people, but, when I saw it, I noticed tons of mother/daughter teams in the theater who were laughing out-loud. There's sex, one moment of casual pot smoking (through an amusingly less-than-casual bong), and several shots of exposed breasts. Rated R. 91 minutes.

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