Slums of Beverly Hills

          If there is a truism about creative artists, it is that mine their lives for
  source material. Sometimes it is only in the first work they produce, while others
  utilize their lives over and over. Filmmakers are no different. Woody Allen
  immediately springs to mind. So it comes a little surprise that writer-director
  Tamara Jenkins would turn inward for her first full-length feature,
    SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS. In this comedy-drama, Jenkins focuses on her
  alter ego, the teenager Vivian Abramowitz, who is coping with being the only
  female in the family as well as the effects of puberty. The film is a bittersweet
  evocation of the mid-1970s, of a dysfunctional family operating as best it can,
  and of a young girl's coming of age. Most films, because they are made and
  financed by men, deal with boys coming-of-age. One could tick off a list
  but few focus on the trials and tribulations of young girls. Recently, Susan Skoog
  undertook the issue with a slightly older heroine in
WHATEVER. That Jenkins
  focused on a younger girl, just developing and feeling shame and confusion
  over her body (as well as a myriad other things), sets this film apart. That
  said, I have to confess that there were things that I failed to appreciate
  — I think because of fundamental differences between men and women.
  Female critics seem to enjoy this film more.

          Jenkins' semi-autobiographical story focuses on Murray (Alan Arkin), a
  divorced older father trying to do right by his three kids, Vivian, Ben and Rickey
  (Natasha Lyonne, David Krumholtz and Eli Marienthal, respectively) by keeping
  them in the school system in Beverly Hills. In order to accomplish this, the
  perennial down-on-his-luck Murray rents apartments on the outskirts of the
  city, drives a demo car from his sales lot, and moves the family frequently
  — often in the middle of the night. 15-year old Vivian particularly feels the
  brunt of these midnight moves and despite her love for her father, is
  embarrassed by his old-fashioned attitudes and exhortation to wear a bra.
  She is also curious about sex and allows Eliot, her sweet Charles
  Manson-obsessed drug dealer (Kevin Corrigan) neighbor to cop a feel in
  the laundry room. Vivian's confusion over her body is particularly
  highlighted as she plaintively asks "Do you think they are deformed?" while
  the young man assures her otherwise.

          Salvation, of sorts, arrives in the form of cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei),
  a troubled young woman who has run away from a drug rehab center. The
  daughter of Murray's wealthy brother (Carl Reiner), Rita recognizes that
  Murray won't judge her as harshly as her father and the two hatch a scheme
  whereby Rita's father will provide financial assistance in return for Murray's
  keeping an eye on her. (Murray also feels it will be helpful to his daughter
  to have another woman around.) At Murray's insistence, Rita enrolls in
  nursing school and it falls to Vivian to make certain that her cousin gets
  there on time. In the script, these two girls share a secret gibberish
  language and seem to have a bond — evidenced by a particularly amusing
  scene in which Rita shows her vibrator to Vivian and then encourages the
  younger girl to dance around with it. Eventually things fall apart and there
  is a final showdown between the brothers before a sort of rapprochement
  among Murray and his kids.

          My biggest gripe about the film is that Jenkins (a very amusing
  woman) fails to find a consistent tone for the film. Despite its title,
SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS is not a jokey, laugh a minute comedy. (The
  director, in fact, quipped, "I thought I was making a tragedy.") Therein
  lies part of the problem. Some scenes (such as Vivian's experimentation
  with sex) have a potent poignancy while others seems disjointed. The
  relationship between Rita and Vivian is presented in some ways as that
  of equals but Rita is clearly older but not more mature (although that
  may be the point Jenkins is striving for). The cutesy gibberish (shown
  in subtitles) doesn't seem to work.

          Jenkins made several well-received short films but given the opportunity
  to make a feature, she seems fearful that she'll never get another chance
  and crams in so many stories it feels overstuffed. Perhaps this is a result
  of hiring such a high profile cast, each of whom seems to be headlining
  their own movie. For a 91-minute comedy, there's just a surfeit. That's
  not to say there aren't good things there. As she demonstrated in
  Woody Allen's
EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, Natasha Lyonne has a
  strong, intelligent screen presence and whatever succeeds in the film
  is due in large part to her. She and Kevin Corrigan create a lovely,
  albeit strange, couple. Alan Arkin undertakes a role he seemingly
  has done before and offers his patented low-key interpretation. Marisa
  Tomei gamely invests Rita with a ditsy air, but the actress is too intelligen
  to carry it off completely. Jessica Walter is okay in a role that borders on
  stereotype. I wanted to like this film more, but as I said at the outset
  maybe it's genetic — guys just won't appreciate this.

                          Rating:                C+
                          MPAA Rating:       R for strong sexual situations, nudity,
                                                       language and drug content
                          Running time:        91 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.