Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

D: Tamara Jenkins
S: Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Natasha Lyonne

Entertaining rites of passage film which substitutes goofiness for nostalgia. Young Natasha Lyonne receives her first bra as the film opens, and is thereafter launched into a confusing world of pending maturity as she and her nomadic family move from apartment to apartment in 1970s Beverly Hills. Things take a significant turn when her flaky cousin Marisa Tomei escapes from a rehab programme and comes to live with them. Meanwhile elderly dad Alan Arkin pursues an Autumn romance with a wealthy divorcee, brother David Krumholtz pursues a role in a production of Guys and Dolls, and Lyonne expands her physical horizons with local hash-dealing youth Kevin Corrigan, who idolises Charles Manson.

There's not all that much structure to this fairly familiar drama, but the off beat tone serves writer/director Tamara Jenkins very well in disguising it. The film is really more a series of anecdotes than an actual narrative, but it is filled with amusing insights and entertaining incident. Lyonne is very good in the lead, holding the centre with a performance which captures a great range of awkward emotions without resorting to cliche. Arkin is wonderful as her well meaning but not entirely successful father, and Tomei is bright and funny in an admittedly showy role.

The scattershot style actually works well for the most part, as it allows the film to avoid many of the traps of the genre. Instead of a progression of revelations leading to a cathartic moment of adult realisation, the film captures a moment of hesitation between awareness and maturity beautifully matched by Lyonne. It does eventually attempt a climax when Tomei's father flies in to confront his shiftless brother and his own less than perfect daughter, but the result is not all that significant. There is less of a feeling of actual change about Lyonne's character than a subtle degree of comfortability about the possibilities of change. This may be too small a shift for real dramatic resolution. Arguably the film has a dual focus which also asks us to follow Arkin's story of growth and change, but again there is not that much progression there either by the time the film ends.

On one level this is frustrating, but on another this playing with convention makes the film different, perhaps deliberately so. Robert Redford served as executive producer, and the feeling one gets is that this is a conscious attempt to articulate an independent (female) perspective on the coming of age narrative (and perhaps upon the 1970s, the site of so much retro drama in the 1990s in the likes of The Ice Storm and Boogie Nights). It is certainly fun to watch and the kooky tone makes it stand out, but there is a constant nagging feeling that it could have been more satisfying with a tad more development both on screen and off. It is still worthwhile though, and has many funny moments (watch for the vibrator dance scene...), and though it is unlikely to win legions of admirers, it should find favour with the segment of the viewing public who are about to face similar challenges.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.