Riding in Cars With Boys (2001): Penny Marshall’s Dreary Melodrama, Starring Drew Barrymore

What begins as a fun-nostalgic high school comedy quickly escalates into a relentlessly dreary melodrama in Penny Marshall’s Riding in Cars With Boys, a two-decade chronicle of a woman who got pregnant at adolescence and found herself stuck with an undesirable marriage and unwanted motherhood.

Our Grade: C- (* out of *****)

Don’t be fooled by Columbia’s ad campaign, which is emphasizing the film’s commercial title and humor (of which there’s little), as well as exploiting the previous credits of producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets) and director Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own).

As the pregnant teenager, who ages from 15 to 36 in the course of the narrative, Drew Barrymore makes a valiant effort to render a sympathetic portrait of what’s basically a severely flawed, incoherent character that, despite the vast historical frame, doesn’t change much.

Since name of co-star Steve Zahn doesn’t mean much at the B.O., it’s Barrymore’s status and track record (Ever After, Never Been Kissed, Charlie’s Angels) which should position this serio comedy as a mid-range player, following a solid opening.
It might have been a mistake to assign Beverly Donofrio’s tough, bitter-sweet Chekhovian memoirs to a neophyte writer such as Morgan Upton Ward, whose first produced script was A Pyromaniac’s Love Story, an artistic and commercial flop. Imposing on her book a detached, decidedly male point of view, Ward has considerably softened the proceedings, resulting in an impersonal film that’s only one notch above a TV-Movie-of-the-Week. That said, since author Donofrio gets credit as co-producer, it’s likely to assume that she approved of the changes, perhaps hoping they’ll make for a more upbeat picture.

At its current shape, Riding in Cars is a throwback to the woman’s picture of yesteryear, a genre that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s, featuring glamorous actresses such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Ginger Rogers in a working-class milieu, except that the new film is neither well-made nor particularly appealing.

The story begins well with a short prologue, set in 1961, the small-town of Wellington, Connecticut, which depicts a vivacious and precocious girl, Beverly (Boorem), utterly preoccupied with sex and boobs. Five years later, at age 15, Bev (Barrymore) is a bright, gifted girl, whose dream is to move to New York, attend the prestigious NYU, and become an accomplished writer. A product of a working-class milieu, she’s the daughter of a typical mom, a homemaker (Bracco), and a rigid, conservative dad, who’s a cop; his profession becomes more meaningful in a later section, in which he arrests his own daughter for smoking dope and throws her to jail. Rising above her class, Bev reads Shakespeare, writes essays for which she gets praise from her teachers, fueling her imagination with romantic novels and their protagonists.

Despite her lofty ambitions, Bev comes across as sassy, funny, and rebellious–even bob-crazy. Publicly rejected and humiliated at a party by the boy she has a crush on, Bev turns to Ray Hasek (Zahn), a tough, not-too-bright but good-hearted dropout, who’s older than her by 3 years. Instantly smitten with her, Ray avenges her compromised honor at the party and proposes wild rides in his car, a typical ritual for youths growing up at that time. Months later, Bev is stunned by an unintended and unexpected pregnancy.

Scenes in which Bev faces–and prepares for–the nightmare of telling her stern parents of her “misconduct” contain some humor and are well-handled, capturing most vividly the stigma signaled by teenage pregnancy in the 1960s. At first, Bev resolves to keep the child and finish school, but under pressure from her father, she quits and agrees to marry Ray so that her family will keep its honor. An awkward wedding scene follows, with accusatory speeches from Bev’s father as well as praiseworthy ones from her best friend, Fay (Murphy), who, low and behold, unexpectedly announces that she too was knocked up.

After the first reel or so, the narrative begins to show its strains in maintaining a serio-comic tone. Here and there, some interesting scenes pop out, such as the one in which Bev refuses to believe that she has given birth to a baby boy, rather than to the hoped-for daughter. Middle section is particularly tedious and repetitious, suffering from a structure that relates the proceedings in flash-backs, shifting back and forth from the present, 1986, in which Bev is seen with her 20-year old son, to Bev’s harrowing past.

Scene after scene, the viewers are exposed to the dreary life of a potentially radiant woman, married way below her aspirations to a loser, who turns out to be a drug addict as well. Working as an air conditioning installer and carpet layer, Ray spends most of his leisure with his buddies, drinking and smoking, failing to assume responsibilities as father or husband. However, despite an excessive running time, there are no scenes that indicate how did this sexless, emotionally barren marriage survive that long.

Taking a punitive approach toward its heroine, Riding in Cars becomes a catalogue of defeats and degradations, beginning with Ray spending all the money Bev has saved for college for his drugs; in a later episode, Fay takes the rest of Bev’s saving to bail her out of jail. A painful scene, in which the heroine’s conflicting instincts about motherhood come to the surface, depicts a desperate Bev, now a finalist for a college scholarship, talking to a college administrator, constantly disrupted by her noisy son, who’s in the room because Ray irresponsibly forgot the important date.
Needless to say, she fails to win the scholarship, and her frustrations increased, though all along, she finds time to start recording her feelings (which will eventually result in the published book, Riding in Cars With Boys). The audience is relieved, when finally Bev asks her husband to leave in what’s an unabashedly melodramatic scene.

Riding in Cars could have been an interesting film about a woman who really didn’t want to be a mother, a touching story of child (Bev) raising a child (Jason), with the offspring being more mature than his mom. However, Ward’s script is not only shallow, but can’t make up its mind whether Bev is–or is not–a good mother. Hence, there are endless arguments between mother and son, with him claiming she’s self-centered and insensitive to his needs, and she flaunting again and again her sacrificial efforts. Ultimately, though, her suffering proves to be her main source of inspiration, and Bev goes on to write a personal memoir.

The script’s problems are exasperated by Marshall’s directorial strokes, which are too broad; Marshall seems unable to relinquish her sitcom origins. Though not a particularly sensitive or deft director, Marshall has shown good commercial instincts for obvious and bland material, such as Awakening, but here, like in other previous efforts, her direction is impersonal, making up in energy what she lacks in finesse, producing easy emotions and occasionally easy laughs.

Barrymore brings her customary charm to a difficult, incoherent role, but she can’t avoid looking and sounding shrill in her mature segments. It’s a tribute to Zahn’s humanistic acting that what’s on paper the least “positive” character becomes in his experts hands the most sympathetic one, particularly at the end, when Bev asks for his permission to publish her revelatory, true-life memoir.

Far too intelligent to play such a primitive and rigid father, James Woods is vastly miscast, whereas Bracco could have played her routine role in her sleep. With the exception of one lively phone scene, in which he talks to his fiancee, Garcia can’t rise above the mundane.

Credits:

Running Time: 132 minutes
Pro co: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Gracie Films production.
US dist: Columbia
Int’l dist:
Exec prods: Morgan Upton Ward, Bridget Johnson
Prods: James L. Brooks, Julie Ansell, Richard Sakai, Sara Colleton, Laurence Mark
Director: Penny Marshall.
Scr: Morgan Upton Ward, based on the book by Beverly Donofrio
Cinematographer: Miroslav Ondricek
Prod des: Bill Groom
Ed: Richard Marks, Lawrence Jordan
Music: Hans Zimmer

Cast

Drew Barrymore
Steve Zahn
Brittany Murphy
Adam Garcia
Lorraine Bracco
James Woods