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Riding in the Car With Boys (Penny Marshall) 2001

Drew Barrymore films of late seem to be so distinctly Drew Barrymore films. Riding in the Cars With Boys claims it was directed by Penny Marshall, and even feels like a very special Laverne and Shirley episode early on, but the film’s auteur is clearly Ms. Barrymore. Almost everything about it has her brassy brand of spunky sass. There’s so much energy bubbling beneath the surface of the picture that it begins to feel detrimental. The film probably features more yelling matches than actual conversations. 

The plot follows Drew (her character has a name, but it’s hard not to look at her as “Drew”) from age 15 to 35 as she learns she is pregnant, then later attempts to raise her kid. The majority of the film is set in Connecticut, and the production design is admirable, since it does not attempt to glorify the characters’ lower class surroundings. There’s a great, drab look to the film. Unfortunately, with the film’s lower-class setting comes some lowbrow humor. At one point, we’re forced to endure a diaper changing montage. It doesn’t get much worse, thankfully, though the scene that shows Drew’s character as she attempts to give herself an abortion by jumping repeatedly down the stairs is of questionable taste.

The film doesn’t feel the least bit pretentious, which helps a lot. It doesn’t apologize when it deposits Drew and Steve Zahn’s newlyweds in a home that sits behind a “Dead End” sign. It’s brassy and bold even in its unapologetic presentation of sentimental pap. There is a bit of tension that exists between Drew and her offspring early on. She resents the child, and holds him accountable for ruining her life. That interesting dimension is cast aside with a faux crisis, however, and the schmaltz continues unabated. The film’s most emotionally resonant moment occurs early on, when Drew confronts her parents with her pregnancy.  She tells her parents she has a plan to deal with it. James Woods, playing her father, questions her, “You have a plan? I had a plan!” Then he casts an absolutely withering, momentary sidelong glance at Drew’s mother. It’s leagues above anything between Drew and her son, and it’s a great reward when the film’s ending acknowledges Drew’s relationship with her father.

The film seems an obvious attempt to recapture the glory of Drew’s shamelessly manipulative tearjerker Boys on the Side, and it even features a redo of that film’s sing-a-long catharsis. Unfortunately, despite some funny moments, the end result isn’t nearly as good. Nonetheless, it’s a moderately entertaining film. Barrymore knows what her target audience likes, and is not ashamed to dish it up.


October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman