Based on the memoir by Beverly D'Onofrio, Penny Marshall's "Riding in Cars with Boys" is an episodic, affecting journey through twenty unpredictable years of a woman's life, as one thing after the next fails to go the way she had planned. As a showcase for the acting range of the effervescent Drew Barrymore (2000's "Charlie's Angels"), the film is an alternately funny and touching comedy-drama that avoids ever becoming too maudlin. Spanning three different decades, however, the movie tends to dwell on certain time periods, only to skip over long sections without a word to what has happened to the characters during these years.
As 36-year-old Beverly D'Onofrio (Drew Barrymore) is on a mystery trip with 20-year-old son Jason (Adam Garcia) in 1986, the clock turns back to the fateful year of 1965, when Beverly was 15 and living in a small Connecticut town with her parents (James Woods, Lorraine Bracco). Meeting the troublesome, but charming, 18-year-old Raymond (Steve Zahn) at a party, Bev is quickly won over by him, but horrified to discover soon after that she is pregnant. In an instant, her plans to go to NYU and become a writer are destroyed as she marries Ray and moves into a run-down home to raise her son. Bev loves her child, but is still just a kid herself, and with the promise to become something special put on the back burner, she can't help but feel contempt toward Jason.
If Drew Barrymore weren't already one of the most popular young actresses around, "Riding in Cars with Boys" would be her breakthrough. In many ways, it still is. By taking the journey of Bev's life and aging from 15 to 36 in the process, she is believable and passionate from beginning to end. Bev is a flawed woman, but she isn't a bad person, and the conflicting feelings she goes through in regard to her son, her husband, and her life are made all the more real by Barrymore's lovely performance.
Director Marshall surrounds Barrymore with a whole roster of impressive talent. Steve Zahn (2001's "Joy Ride") is better than he's ever been as Raymond, a man who could be a good father if he didn't have so many issues of his own, including a serious heroin addiction. Brittany Murphy (2001's "Don't Say a Word") acts as a perfect counterbalance to Bev, as loyal best friend Faye, who also becomes pregnant as a teenager. James Wood (2001's "Scary Movie 2") is caring, yet stern as Bev's police officer father, who finds his own dreams for Bev's future ruined by her mistakes. Adam Garcia (2000's "Coyote Ugly") is also fine as the adult Jason; it's amazing how believable a son he is to Barrymore, considering he is two years older in real life. And it's nice to see Sara Gilbert (TV's "Roseanne") again, in the small, but important part of Bev's high school buddy, Tina, who ends up going to NYU in the place of Bev.
Long-time director-actress Penny Marshall (1996's "The Preacher's Wife") is an assured filmmaker who keeps the proceedings afloat even when certain parts slow the pacing down. The film has no clear-cut plot to speak of; it's a small slice-of-life that allows you to consider the things you could have done differently in your own life. Great '60s and '70s pop tunes also help to add period flavor and nostalgia. For all of this, the movie works.
Still, the premise is one that may be too flimsy to withhold the 131-minute running time. Nothing much happens as a whole, and it would seem more suitable as a television movie. "Riding in Cars with Boys" isn't as great a film as it aspires to be, but it is an entertaining one, and Drew Barrymore is a standout; she's worth recommending the film all on her own.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman