"Riding in Cars With Boys" is a failed film that gives glimpses of the success that might have been. Buried under the miscalculations, the shamelessness, the off-putting and inappropriate broadness are sporadically visible souvenirs of a good project gone bad, hints of the unusual, bittersweet story that got away.
With Drew Barrymore starring as a good girl surviving bad situations by believing "that which doesn't kill you makes you want to die," "Riding in Cars With Boys" is based on a widely appreciated memoir by Beverly Donofrio. Screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward's adaptation interested several directors, with the assignment going to Penny Marshall. The results are not the best.
Certainly films like "Awakenings" and "A League of Their Own" have established Marshall as a crowd-pleaser, and at least one of her pictures, "Big," has been memorable. But her bent is for sticky sentiment and shameless comedy, for over-emphasizing emotions whenever possible. Subtlety and restraint are not in the vocabulary of someone who prefers to overdose audiences on cute kid shots, and the obviousness of her sensibility is not what's called for here. After a brief prologue of Beverly at age 11, "Riding in Cars" shifts back and forth between the adult Beverly of the 1980s, the mother of a grown son (Adam Garcia), and the teenage girl of two decades earlier. The youngster is a 15-year-old police chief's daughter growing up in Wallingford, Conn., in 1965 with the philosophy that "fun is what you bring with you."
Invariably boy crazy, Beverly goes to a big party with a crush on a handsome but stuck-up football player. She instead connects with an 18-year-old dropout named Ray Hasek (an excellent Steve Zahn), a goofy kid who's the first to tell you he's trouble from the wrong side of the tracks.
Much to the horror of straitlaced parents (played by James Woods and Lorraine Bracco) and the chagrin of best friend Fay Forrester (Brittany Murphy), Beverly ends up pregnant at 15 and forced into an unpromising marriage. Yes, Ray truly loves her, but as a feckless, substance-abusing simpleton, he's a poor match for a bright, ambitious young woman who dreams of a college education and a writing career. And then there is that child.
Beverly is a complicated, challenging character who ages 20 years in the course of the film and refuses to be fazed by life's low blows, so it's no surprise that Barrymore was eager to play her. But she has trouble looking convincingly 15 (what 26-year-old actress wouldn't?) and she hasn't had the help she should have with the more complex aspects of Beverly's tricky personality.
To start with, Beverly is made to look more severe and unattractive than necessary, so much so that it begins to feel like the film enjoys humiliating her. In fact, people who go to "Riding in Cars" based on the smiling, cheerful image of the star on the poster can consider themselves victims of misleading advertising.
And while it's understood that a striving teenage mother married to a drunken fool with the ambition of a slug is going to be miserable a lot of the time, Barrymore has not found an acceptable way to play that emotion. Her Beverly is too difficult, too much of a glum, seething-with-resentments, self-centered whiner to either engage our sympathy or do justice to the more dimensional character the real woman must have been.
It's rare to see as likable and capable a performer as Barrymore seem so much out of her element in a role. She may have gotten too much direction, or too little, but the result has left her uncertain and at sea in a way that makes us feel more empathy for her as an actress than we do for the plight of her character.
The difficulties Barrymore has parallel and likely stem from the problems the film has overall with its more painful moments. At home with the comedy, even if it is too broad, the director brings next to nothing to the serious scenes; they simply sit there on the screen, empty and forlorn. Only two actors manage to climb out of the wreckage: Zahn, who beautifully arouses our sympathy with his fine work as the overmatched Ray, and Murphy, invariably funny as soul mate Fay. Otherwise, "Riding In Cars With Boys" is a shipwreck that really didn't need to happen.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, drug and sexual content. Times guidelines: much talk about drugs and sex.
'Riding in Cars With Boys'
Drew Barrymore: Beverly Donofrio
Steve Zahn: Ray Hasek
Brittany Murphy: Fay Forrester
Adam Garcia: Jason
Lorraine Bracco: Mrs. Donofrio
James Woods: Mr. Donofrio
A Gracie Films production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Penny Marshall. Producers James L. Brooks, Julie Ansell, Richard Sakai, Sara Colleton, Laurence Mark. Executive producers Morgan Upton Ward, Bridget Johnson. Screenplay Morgan Upton Ward, based on the book by Beverly Donofrio. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. Editors Richard Marks, Lawrence Jordan. Costumes Cynthia Flynt. Music Hans Zimmer, Heitor Pereira. Production design Bill Groom. Art director Teresa Carriker-Thayer. Set decorator George DeTitta. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times