The big problem in writing about a Drew Barrymore movie is that she's always so blasted fantastic. Sure, she's not exactly hot guacamole in the acting department, but in the shining-like-the-morning-sun department she's a world-beater. Her best roles are usually tributes to chutzpah, kindness, and creative self-transformation, or what you might call the Makeover Principle--a catalyzing force in most women's lives. Girls understand why it is proper and just that every new Drew movie calls for a new hairstyle, a new and fabulous way to be Drew, because girls understand the weird transformative power of these things. It's really not about being fashionable, or attracting men. That's child's play.
Of course, Barrymore's movies are pure pop art. Never intellectual or artsy-hip, they don't usually confront ugly truths, or peel back the veneer of contemporary society, or whatever. They're lightweight antidotes to the soul-corroding fairy tales of childhood. (Her pro-girl Cinderella, Ever After, is only the most obvious example.) They're settings for Barrymore's best quality: her soul-glow. Which is why I admire Barrymore's effort with her latest movie, Riding in Cars With Boys--a messy, epic, sweaty, and difficult movie where her character hurts people, regularly. This is Barrymore's first snorting dragon of a role, requiring far more than spunk and giggles. She has to really act. It's the kind of role you could see Kate Winslet inhabiting masterfully.
Then again, too much mastery could have ruined the whole thing: Winslet had difficulty with a similar role in Hideous Kinky, where she played a flawed and selfish but well-intentioned young mother. It's hard to make a child-harmer sympathetic, which is precisely why Barrymore was cast. That and her star power: Riding in Cars With Boys is the kind of movie that usually doesn't get made for a lack of stars in the cast and behind the scenes.
This may be a Hollywood movie, but it sure doesn't act like one. The script is based on a decidedly unglamorous memoir by Beverly Donofrio about her unexpected entry into motherhood. (Its attention to the grimmer aspects of this history may owe to director Penny Marshall's empathy for the narrative, having been a teenage mother herself.) Precocious Bev (Barrymore) is a policeman's daughter (dad played by James Woods) who gets pregnant in 1965 at age 15. Trapped, she drops out of high school and marries her loser boyfriend, Ray (Steve Zahn), whom she doesn't love, and who eventually fulfills his potential as a complete fuckup. (Without giving away anything major, let's just say he makes himself unfit to be a parent.) Poor, uninterested in motherhood, super-smart yet deeply clueless, Bev makes one bad choice after the next. Her son Jason (played by a series of intensely cute kids and, as an adult, by Adam Garcia) is the main casualty of her mistakes.
At first, Bev's teenage bewilderment seems charming: When her water breaks, she stands in a puddle in the bathroom, crying, "This is so gross!" It's less easy to sympathize as the infant grows and a montage of images portrays Bev as a neglectful mom--her nose is in a book while her baby cries, bored and smelly, diaper full. These scenes are where Barrymore's charm is most crucial: We resent her, yet we can't give up on her. But when she repeats the "This is so gross" refrain later in the film, in a much more serious context, you want to throttle her. Ditto when she tells her son to get lost while she gets high with her best girlfriend, Fay (Brittany Murphy).
The film is sometimes narrated by Garcia, which supposedly gives it a kind of objectivity but does nothing of the sort. We see the film through Bev's experience, if in her son's voice. And we're aware when she seems to be spinning events to her own ends. For example, when she fails to win a college scholarship, it's her toddler son's fault for ruining the interview. When she gets busted for dealing pot, it's the kid's fault for squealing.
Granted, Donofrio is obviously aware these scenes don't present her in the kindest light. Such honesty should earn her some kind of brownie points, I guess, but doesn't make you like her any better. And yet you kind of do like her, thanks to moments of pure Barrymorism. When Bev and Ray arrive in their grody government housing on their wedding night, after a moment of shock, she decides to be happy: "This is going to be fun!" she shouts, doing jumping jacks.
Yes, Drew is getting gritty. But if this movie is a stretch for Barrymore, it's an equal one for Marshall. For starters, it has the visual realism of a low-budget indie or foreign film--much grittier than Hollywood's typical attempts at a working-class setting. (Wish Barrymore's accent were as convincing!) Equally surprising, every character is multifaceted and unpredictable, serving not as handy archetypes but as, well, people.
All of which makes this sound like a great film. It's not. Beyond its sagging middle section, the movie requires Barrymore to age 20 years, from 15 to 35. Barrymore doesn't look 35, and she isn't comfortable playing 35. Often we feel her trying to be older, with slower movements and more knowing facial expressions. It's also too bad she has to play the mother of an actor (Garcia) who is two years older than she is: They're just not physically believable as mother and son. Somehow, though, their last few scenes overcome this handicap, with help from Zahn.
In the end, this is not a great Drew Barrymore movie, but it is a milestone for her as an actor, and another example of her need to constantly improve. Surprisingly, it does turn out to be a great Steve Zahn movie. Much of the time he gives Barrymore a solid foundation for experimentation. But somehow, without meaning to, he ends up stealing the movie from everyone. No doubt he does this with much actorly generosity from Barrymore, and deep sympathy from the author. Donofrio manages to forgive her ex-husband for something damn near unforgivable. In this single act of love she transcends herself--and also discovers how to turn her own screwed-up life into art.
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