Slums of Beverly Hills

FamilyEntertainmentMarisa TomeiAlan ArkinNatasha LyonneWoody AllenCarl Reiner

Friday August 14, 1998

     First-time writer-director Tamara Jenkins opens her coming-of-age comedy "Slums of Beverly Hills" with a scene reminiscent of the opening of John Hughes' 1984 film "Sixteen Candles," but she makes it a lot more meaningful.
     In Hughes' movie, Molly Ringwald's character is met on her 16th birthday with an excited grandparent's observation that "she finally got her boobies!" In "Slums," Natasha Lyonne's Vivian is taken to a lingerie shop by her divorced father, Murray Abramowitz (Alan Arkin), who explains to a clerk--as if apologizing for a mutant family gene--that his daughter has suddenly become "stacked like her mother."
     Both scenes are played for laughs, but where it's an obvious, easy laugh for Hughes, who built his early career on the cliches of teenage angst and the stereotyping of adults, it's one loaded with meaningful context by Jenkins.
     At the beginning of "Slums," we see the otherwise slight 15-year-old Vivian staring at her image in a mirror, taking in the acreage of her first bra and feeling both transformed and deformed. In voice-over narration, she accuses her breasts of changing her life forever. Her older brother Ben (David Krumholtz) can't take his eyes off them, and her father can barely look at her without being reminded of his wife. It's as if the sheer weight of these additions are pulling her forward into a frightening Neverland.
     Vivian, her father, Ben and little brother Rickey (Eli Marienthal) are suburban nomads--the movie is set in the mid-'70s--moving from one run-down apartment building to another on the tattered fringes of 90210, trying to stay ahead of the eviction notices while staying within the Beverly Hills school district.
     "Furniture is temporary, but education is forever," Murray assures his confused brood.
     Murray is a major failure at love and work, but he's determined to do right by his kids, even if it means taking in his wild niece Rita (Marisa Tomei) in exchange for a monthly living allowance from his wealthy, hypercritical brother Mickey (Carl Reiner). All Murray has to do is keep Rita out of trouble and get her into some sort of school.
     Much of what follows is more situation-comedy than feature material. It feels like a vague, upscale knockoff of "The Beverly Hillbillies," and Jenkins' eagerness to please with class-conscious jokiness often comes at the expense of her solid underlying issues.
     The biggest mistakes are made with Rita, played with typically studied preciousness by Tomei, who joins the family--pregnant and freshly escaped from a drug rehab clinic--and becomes Vivian's mentor. There's a lot of show with the character, and not much go.
     But generally Jenkins shows few rookie jitters, and she got excellent performances from the rest of her cast. Lyonne, who also served as the narrator-daughter in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," plays Vivian with an irresistible blend of maturity and innocence.
     That the 64-year-old Arkin is a little old to be playing fathers with school-age children prompted Jenkins to include a few "Is that your grandfather?" jokes, but the weight of his sensitive portrayal keeps the story grounded. Kevin Corrigan, a neighbor who's being considered by Vivian as a first lover, is also very good.


Slums of Beverly Hills, 1998. R for strong sexual situations, nudity, language and drug content. A South Fork Pictures production, released by Fox Searchlight. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Producers Michael Nozik, Stan Wlodkowski. Editor Pamela Martin. Production designer Dena Roth. Art director Scott Plauche. Set decorator Robert Greenfield. Music Rolfe Kent. Costumes Kirsten Everberg. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. Natasha Lyonne as Vivian. Alan Arkin as Murray. Eli Marienthal as Rickey. Marisa Tomei as Rita.

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