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Down But Not Out in 'Beverly Hills'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 1998

  Movie Critic

Slums of Beverly Hills
Alan Arkin, Natasha Lyonne and Jessica Walter are on the edge in "Slums of Beverly Hills." (Fox Searchlight)

Tamara Jenkins
Natasha Lyonne;
Alan Arkin;
Marisa Tomei;
Kevin Corrigan;
Rita Moreno;
Carl Reiner;
Jessica Walter
Running Time:
1 hour, 31 minutes
Contains bare breasts, discreet sex and a wide array of sexual subject matter
Tart, smart, but cut with an unapologetic dose of sweetness, "Slums of Beverly Hills" is an engaging cranberry-juice cocktail of coming-of-age laughs and low-calorie pathos from first-time feature director Tamara Jenkins. Like its Southern California setting, the sunny semi-autobiography is tempered with just the right touch of Jenkins's smoggy cynicism.

Set in 1976, "Slums" is Jenkins's fictionalized memoir of her early teens, spent on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, Calif., where she lived with her divorced dad and two brothers in a series of mid- to downscale hotels – moving often enough to stay ahead of the bill collectors but retaining legal residence in the town's good school district.

Standing in for the filmmaker is Natasha Lyonne as the 15-year-old Vivian Abramowitz, who wakes up one morning to discover that she has grown breasts. Actually, it's her father Murray (Alan Arkin) who does the waking up, when he is scolded by the bra saleswoman (Bryna Weiss) for waiting so long to bring his obviously well-endowed daughter in for a fitting.

Arkin's look of paternal concern and mortification is priceless, matched only by Lyonne's slow burn as she tries to decide what to do with the "deformed" appendages she has sprouted, seemingly overnight. It doesn't help matters either that little brother Rickey (Eli Marienthal) and older brother Ben (David Krumholtz) can't help noticing that their sister is suddenly stacked.

It's an emblematic scene, because for Jenkins the bosom is a leitmotif that informs and shapes her wry and unromanticized vision of budding womanhood. Representing lust, shame, power and insecurity, the bust becomes a symbol that is at once familiar and foreign – and very funny.

The all-male household shortly receives another dash of estrogen with the arrival of Vivian's troubled older cousin Rita (the deliciously earthy Marisa Tomei), running away from a drug rehab center. When we first encounter her, she is flagging down an 18-wheel semi-tractor-trailer by, appropriately enough, flashing her chest at the driver.

Before long, Vivian is exploring her own incipient sexuality – courtesy of Rita's hand-held vibrator and the charming but spooky boy next door, Eliot (Kevin Corrigan). Throughout this personal voyage of discovery, the heroine is also learning something about family and what that means, however screwy her own kinfolk might be.

Lyonne is marvelous in conveying Vivian's combination of confusion, curiosity, disgust and desire at what body and psyche are going through. After playing a string of people's daughters ("Everyone Says I Love You," "Krippendorf's Tribe"), Lyonne really comes into her own here as an actress, registering as a person and not merely someone's little girl.

The rest of the cast is equally strong: Arkin as the perplexed and patient paterfamilias; Corrigan as Vivian's tender, Charles Manson-loving, pot dealer beau; and Carl Reiner as Murray's successful brother Mickey, come to collect the runaway Rita. All are amusingly understated and believable. What makes the quirky characters work is Jenkins's obvious affection for them and her knack for observation, resulting in moments that – more often than not – are both hilarious and revealing. One emotional scene between Vivian and Rita takes place in a public restroom, where the two bare their souls in the private childhood language of gibberish – "five minutes" is spoken as "fiddy-give middy-giniddy-gutes" – complete with subtitles.

In yet another summer of escapist cinema in which lizards, wars and meteors are offered up as diverting entertainment, it's rather nice to contemplate that the most exciting dramas sometimes take place in the realm of the mundane.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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