Slums of Beverly Hills

Slums of Beverly Hills
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins
Stars: Natasha Lyonne (Vivian Abramowitz), Alan Arkin (Murray Abramowitz), Marisa Tomei (Rita Abramowitz), Kevin Corrigan (Eliot), Eli Marienthal (Rickey Abramowitz), David Krumholtz (Ben Abramowitz), Jessica Walter (Doris), Carl Reiner (Mickey Abramowitz)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1998
Country: USA
Getting through adolescence is hard enough in and of itself, but for Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne), the 14-year-old heroine of Tamara Jenkins' semi-autobiographical "Slums of Beverly Hills," the gauntlet run of growing up isn't being made any easier by her eccentric family.

First of all, there's her own physical turmoil: her body has suddenly started developing, apparently out of nowhere, and she isn't sure if she likes this change. When the movie first opens, she is shopping for her first bra in the department store with her father, Murray (Alan Arkin), a divorced car salesman. Murray tells the sales woman, "It happened, I tell you, overnight. She just got stacked like her mother." The appalled, incredulous, bulging-eyes, "I-can't-believe-he-just-said-that" look on Vivian's face (she is positioned in the foreground with Murray and the sales woman standing behind her) is priceless in the way it sums up her entire approach to life.

This will not be the last embarrassing moment for Vivian, and the film sometimes plays like a catalogue of all the awkward moments a 14-year-old girl can have: being teased by her brothers about her new breasts, getting caught by her father with a vibrator, walking in on her cousin in the shower, starting her period at someone's house when she isn't prepared, getting to second base for the first time on a dryer in the laundry room of her apartment building, and so on. The movie plays these scenes for laughs, but there's an underlying nostalgia and innocence about them, although they never feel sentimental in the least. In fact, "Slums of Beverly Hills" is one of the most unsentimental comedies about growing up I've ever seen.

Vivian lives with her father and two brothers, pothead Ben (David Krumholtz) and the younger Rickey (Eli Marienthal). It's the summer of 1976, and the family is on the move again. Apparently, they move about every three months just before rent is due, which Vivian doesn't see as normal, but Murray assures her is necessary in order for them to live in the best possible locale on his small salary. They live on the fringes of Beverly Hills, California in dingbats--squarish, two-story apartment buildings with exotic names like "The Beverly Capri" and "Casa Bella" that "promise the good life but never deliver." All these apartments (most of which are pink) are located just inside the city limits so the kids can be in a good school district, but not so far in that the environment looks anything like the Beverly Hills you might expect.

As if their family life isn't complicated enough, Rita (Marisa Tomei), the daughter of Murray's rich older brother, Mickey (Carl Reiner), runs away from her most recent detox center and shows up on Murray's doorstep. Murray doesn't want another mouth to feed, and Rita is a handful--she's 29, she still doesn't know what she wants to do with her life, and, unbeknownst to anyone, she's pregnant. However, when Murray realizes that if he takes care of her, Mickey will be forced to chip in money for the rent and living expenses, thus enabling them to move to a nicer apartment, he lets her stay. So, the Abramowitzes move one more time into a much more plush apartment--"Look, Formica"--right across the street from where they had been living.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, and she gives the film a lighthearted, jangly feel. It covers some serious topics about adolescence, but it does it with a wink and a knowing nod; some things that are tragic when you're 14 are quite funny in hindsight. Jenkins' script has a loose, almost improvised feel to it; the dialogue is always interesting and punchy, and she uses some amusing flashbacks to expand on the characters.

The film is heavily reliant on its actors to pull the material through, which can be tricky business. Natasha Lyonne (the narrator from "Everyone Says I Love You"), whose long, curly blond locks make her look like her head is in a constant state of explosion, is a real find in the lead role; she's a young actress who can portray the rigors and pains of growing up without being sappy or weak. Her Vivian is one of the great screen teenagers--smart, tough, but still vulnerable and unsure of herself. You have to feel for her in the uniquely bizarre family situation she lives with, and you have to respect her for staying so sane.

Character actor Alan Arkin turns in great, straight comic performance as Murray, although some of his best moments show that he is an honest man in a tough situation, just trying to do what's best for his kids. Near the end of the film, Mickey begins ridiculing Murray's earning potential and how he's been borrowing money all his life. Murray continually asks in a quiet voice, "Mickey, not in front of the kids," and Arkin's downcast eyes and hurt tone make you feel how humiliating it is for him to be stripped bare by his older brother in front of his children. It's a painful moment, but Jenkins script gives the scene a punchline that is completely unexpected, yet hilariously appropriate.

The rest of the cast does a good job filling out the supporting roles, including Marisa Tomei in one of her first out-and-out comic performances since "My Cousin Vinny" (1992), and Kevin Corrigan as Eliot, Vivian's Charles-Manson-obsessed teenage neighbor who ends up being her boyfriend of sorts. Some of the scenes between Vivian and Eliot don't work as well as they probably should have, and if anything, this can be seen as the weak link in the film. However, Eliot does have several amusing scenes, especially when he informs Vivian that he quit high school to "join the workforce," which to him means selling pot.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" is certainly a unique, inventive movie about the rigors of growing up. By maintaining a tone that is bright and raucous, instead of heavy and sentimental, it keeps the audience on their toes, never sure entirely what to expect. Jenkins is an obviously talented, witty, and provocative writer/director. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

©1999 James Kendrick

Review posted
Jan. 31, 1999

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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