- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

"Riding in Cars With Boys," evidently a metaphor for the fundamental vulnerability of women, is crowded with human interest of a somewhat squalid and jaw-breaking kind. Given its eventual complacency about the misspent youth and alienating vanity of its protagonist, an ignorant teen-age mother and aspiring confessional writer named Beverly Donofrio, impersonated by Drew Barrymore, the movie is a bumpy seriocomic ride at best.

As a cinematic chauffeur, director Penny Marshall tends to veer all over the road and require the occasional tow. To be fair, she seems to be stuck with a faulty vehicle, derived from a 1990 memoir of the same title by Miss Donofrio, also credited as a co-producer and evidently encouraged to hang out with all the principals engaged in transposing her book to the screen.

Miss Marshall is at her most confident and proficient when preoccupied with incidental domestic or amorous slapstick. She's at her shakiest when trying to tailor the game but undertrained Miss Barrymore for an Academy Award.

Drew Barrymore is one of the family, of course, and perhaps more of a pet with the film press than Renee Zellweger. Hollywood may prove generous to a fault when observing Miss Barrymore's obvious struggle to expand her proven light comedy charm and skill into abrasive tear-jerking areas that are likely to rub spectators the wrong way.

The struggle certainly falls short of dramatic confidence and precision, but if general amnesia sets in about such logical contenders as Charlotte Rampling, Tilda Swinton and Nicole Kidman, I suppose anything could happen. It may be prudent to check out "Riding in Cars With Boys" for no other reason than to feel informed about the next Oscar race.

The screenplay lurches about on a flashback chassis that places the front end in 1986 while obliging the back end to catch up from a start in 1961, when Beverly is evoked as a brash and perhaps precocious 11-year-old, the daughter of a proud Wallingford, Conn., cop played by James Woods.

The pivotal flashbacks occur a few years later, with Miss Barrymore on board as Beverly. Precocious in the sorriest respects, she blunders into pregnancy and an ill-advised marriage at age 15. Always more wrapped up in herself than her child (a son named Jason rejected at first sight because Beverly has decided that only a baby girl would be tolerable) she attempts to juggle educational and writing plans with shabby domesticity as the spouse of a good-natured no-account named Ray Hasek.

Cast to perfection as Ray, Steve Zahn (already a passenger in "Joy Ride" this season) creates a genuinely funny and endearing impression of a guy who is totally out of the question as Prince Charming or a reliable breadwinner. If Miss Marshall had resisted the urge to give him a few moments of blubbering, the performance would be impeccable in its essentially scroungy and disreputable way.

Self-pity is sort of a reciprocal weakness with Beverly and Ray. As a practical matter, any indulgence of it leaves the actors at a disadvantage, especially during the stretch of flashbacks in which juvenile Cody Arens plays Jason at the age of 5 or 6. Whenever he's in camera range, you're more interested in his responses than those of the nominally grown-up performers.

It's a little embarrassing to observe that he rants and pouts more incisively and dynamically than the leading lady. That kind of request may be easier for a kid brimming with spontaneity than a young actress groping for versatility and impact before she turns 30.

What may suit Miss Donofrio as an outrageous humorist doesn't necessarily suit Miss Barrymore as a personality. Moreover, the credibility of writing as a vocation and profession is chronically difficult to confirm in a movie. How do you illustrate the sedentary nature of it all? Why bother? Verbal fluency should suffice, but the screen Beverly doesn't achieve much separation from the other characters on that score. Little Jason seems to enjoy snappier timing.

Rosie Perez (long time no see) proves a last-reel godsend while fuming around a trailer, incensed at Beverly's condescending visit to wheedle a favor out of Ray years after their estrangement and divorce.

It's not as if "Riding in Cars With Boys" is a calamity. It just tends to lose its way while insisting on a misguided destination.

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