[Screen It]

(2001) (Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn) (PG-13)

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Drama: As she grows up over twenty years, a young woman must deal with the many unexpected setbacks and challenges that life throws her way as she tries to make something of herself.
As 35-year-old Bev Donofrio (DREW BARRYMORE) and her 20-year-old son, Jason (ADAM GARCIA), set out to overcome one last hurdle to her publishing her life story, "Riding in Cars With Boys," we see a series of flashbacks that lead them up to this point in 1996.

Back in 1965, 15-year-old Bev lives with her parents, Theresa (LORRAINE BRACCO) and Leo (JAMES WOODS), a local cop, but spends time chasing boys with her friends, Fay (BRITTANY MURPHY) and Tina (SARA GILBERT). While at a party doing just that, 18-year-old dropout Ray Hasek (STEVE ZAHN) defends her honor and the two quickly become an item.

One thing leads to another and Bev, like Fay, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, greatly disappointing her parents. After weighing her options, Bev decides to marry Ray. After having Jason, she works as hard as she can so that she can win a scholarship to attend college to pursue her dream of writing. Unfortunately and unbeknownst to her, one thing after another - particularly motherhood and Ray's deadbeat ways -- ultimately derail her plans.

As the years pass, however, and Jason (LOGAN ARENS & CODY ARENS) gets older and Ray and his friend, Lizard (DAVID MOSCOW) create more unexpected challenges in her life, Bev finds herself questioning her potential, future and her ability to be a good mother. From that point on - in both the past and present -- she does what she must and can to get on with life and overcome the various setbacks and challenges thrown her way.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
To paraphrase any number of movie aliens who visit our planet, "I'm surprised you humans/Earthlings/insect-like creatures have survived as long as you have." That's because while we may have the physical and intellectual abilities to make our way through life, our relatively fragile emotional state often undermines our efforts.

Whether it's of our own doing or the results of someone else's actions and/or attitudes, our hopes and dreams are often interrupted, dashed or flung about like rag dolls. Not surprisingly, an entire industry thrives on the results of just that, with psychiatrists, self-help gurus and motivational speakers telling us that when handed lemons, we should make lemonade.

Such inspirational thoughts also make it into the movies, such as when Forrest Gump talks about life being like a box of chocolates in that you never know what might come oozing out of whatever you bite into.

That's why I got a kick out of a spin on a well-known line delivered early in the latest Drew Barrymore vehicle that states, "That which doesn't kill you, just makes you want to die." Instead of seeking professional help or writing a country song - as the occasional narrator comments - the film's heroine, one Beverly Donofrio, decided to turn her colorful life of turmoil, challenges and unexpected setbacks into a cathartic book, "Riding in Cars With Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good."

More than a decade after its first publication, that work now hits the big screen as "Riding in Cars With Boys," a comedy-laced drama that for the most part works, despite having its share of some problems, narrative and otherwise. As directed by Penny Marshall ("The Preacher's Wife," "Big") and written by screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward ("A Pyromaniac's Love Story"), the film is staged as one of those tales where the "present day" scenes serve as a framing device for the various flashbacks that tell the main story and obviously lead and build up to the contemporary resolution.

Such narrative structures are dicey prospects as they just as often disrupt the story's flow as make things interesting, and that's certainly the case here. Instead of just telling the story in chronological order, the filmmakers jump around through time, a point not helped by the fact that the film's occasional narrator is the protagonist's adult son and not her.

Accordingly, we're treated to narrative-based exposition as well as various individual sequences that don't always mesh as well as they should, resulting in the film sporting something of an episodic feel. That said, many of the scenes, particularly in the first half, work rather well on their own.

The filmmakers - and apparently Donofrio in her novel - know that viewers can only take so much emotional turmoil, distress and dashed dreams and opportunities before things become overbearingly melodramatic. Thus, they've injected a decent amount of humor into the proceedings. Unfortunately, most of that's front-loaded as the various amusing moments - which are plentiful in the first half - dry up in the second, resulting in a film that teeters on melodrama as more setbacks and familial strife pile on.

Along with various nice moments and touches that Marshall and company throw in, however, - such as Fay impersonating Bev's father reacting to news of her teen pregnancy and an inappropriate song being played at her wedding - the film benefits from a good cast and generally solid performances.

Marking lead performer Drew Barrymore's ("Charlie's Angels," "Ever After") most ambitious role she's tackled yet, the 26-year-old actress is more successful playing younger than older (she ages from 15 to 35 in the story), where heavy, everyday makeup is supposed to make her look nearly ten years older, but isn't quite successful. While her dramatic efforts aren't always convincing, this is easily Barrymore's most accomplished performance to date and there's no denying she's entertaining to watch, particularly in the film's early moments.

Supporting performances fare better, although the script occasionally ignores and/or discards some of the characters after a time. Taking more of a dramatic turn himself than usual, Steve Zahn ("Joy Ride," "That Thing You Do!" is quite good as the deadbeat father, while Brittany Murphy ("Don't Say A Word," "Clueless") delivers yet another solid performance as Bev's best friend.

James Woods ("Any Given Sunday," "The General's Daughter") and Lorraine Bracco ("Goodfellas," TV's "The Sopranos") are also good as Bev's disappointed parents, but their roles feel shortchanged and then mostly abandoned as the film wears on. Adam Garcia ("Coyote Ugly," "Wilde") is decent as her adult son, but doesn't get enough time to work the character as best as he might have.

Containing most of the obligatory elements to be considered a "chick flick," the film is good when it mixes humor with its pathos, but starts to wear thin when melodrama replaces most of the former. Thankfully, it's not a completely debilitating flaw by any means.

Yet, it, the unnecessary story structure and resultant episodic feel - not to mention some visibly awful reverse angle dubbing (where the person with their back to the camera is speaking) - undermine the story's "can do" spirit and message. In the end, "Riding in Cars With Boys" might move around a lot, but it isn't quite as fun a trip as it initially appears it will be. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 16, 2001 / Posted October 19, 2001

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