A notch above the level of a TV sitcom, Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins' semi-autobiographical feature directorial debut, is a bawdy, extremely broad comedy about an eccentric downwardly-mobile Jewish family, centering on the coming-of-age of a bright adolescent girl (lovely played by debutante Natasha Lyonne). Rude, vulgar and sporadically funny, this Fox Searchlight release should play well with young urban dwellers, but is less likely to turn on the more mature and discriminating viewers due to its mediocre execution.
Set in 1976, this very much '70s movie is conceived in the vein of the Jewish neurotic comedies made by Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner (who plays a part in the picture), with two notable exceptions: The story is refreshingly told from a female P.O.V., and it's not nearly as accomplished or poignantly hilarious as the works of the aforementioned directors.
Head of this yarn's dysfunctional clan is benevolent patriarch Murray (Alan Arkin), a single, divorced father in constant search for a better lifestyle for his three children. Subscribing to the belief that “furniture is temporary, but education is forever,” Murray's goal is to keep his family in the Beverly Hills school district, thought all he can afford is living in the fringes of the otherwise lush town.
When the story begins, the Abramowitzes move yet again to a cheap one-bedroom apartment in a run-down complex. As the household's only female, Vivian (Lyons) gets the bedroom, where she spends most of the time observing–and being observed by her two brothers–her blossoming sexuality. Almost all the jokes in the first reel concern Vivian's large bosom, which she watches in terror, considering at one point surgical reduction. It also vastly upsets her conservative father, whose constant refrain is “put on a brassiere.”
Considerable color is added to the bumpy tale by Rita (Marisa Tomei), the wild daughter of Murray's wealthy brother Mickey (Carl Reiner), who has supported the Abramowitzes for decades, and Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), Vivian's Charles Manson-obsessed neighbor who, like all the others, become smitten with her breasts. A screw-up and embarrassment to her family, the just-out-of-drug rehab Rita moves in with her uncle, soon ironically becoming Vivian's “role model.”
Jenkins, who developed her script at the Sundance Institute, has some good comic ideas. However, to captivate the audience, she seems to go out of her way to use a profane lingo and outrageous situations that don't always work. Central set piece is a scene in which Vivian is introduced by Rita to a vibrator and goes on to play with it. As funny as this sequence is, like many of the subsequent jokes, it's not particularly well-staged and it goes far too long. In general, Jenkins' approach is heavy-handed, lacking discipline and sensitivity to tempo in the manner with which she orchestrates the movie's visual or verbal gags.
Well-cast, newcomer Lyonne, who also narrates, holds center-screen with ease and considerable chutzpa, often raising the comedy to wilder levels than its writing allows. Spunky and sexy, Tomei is more subdued and less irritating than she has been in years. Playing a 65-year-old man, way too old to have such young kids, Arkin is pro in a role that by now he could have played in his sleep. Rest of the cast, which includes Rita Moreno as Mickey's wife and Jessica Walter as Murray's neurotically fastidious g.f., is decent.
Notwithstanding Tom Richmond's lensing, which effectively evokes the time and place, other tech credits are modest.