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Slums of Beverly Hills

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Director Tamara Jenkins makes her feature film debut with Slums of Beverly Hills, a funny and poignant look at a Jewish family that lives on the fringes of the good life. In order to keep his family in the best school districts, the father, Murray Abramowitz (Alan Arkin), brings his daughter and two sons to the edges of Beverly Hills, to live in apartment buildings with incredibly promising names, such as "The Paradise" and "The Capri." These apartment buildings are actually sleazy dumps; however, they're within the Beverly Hills school district.

Living on the edge of wealth has given the family an inferiority complex. Murray's desire to help his children get ahead in life is what pushes him forward; however, his life is a wreck. Recently divorced, he struggles to bring home enough money for the family to live on. As a result, whenever they fall behind in the rent, he rounds up the family in the middle of the night, tells them to pack only their essentials, and then off they go to another apartment--just one step ahead of the irate landlords. As the older brother (David Krumholtz) says, they're like "nomads."

Loosely based on her own experiences growing up in the '70s, Tamara Jenkins' camera focuses primarily on the 15-year-old daughter, Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), who is struggling with her own confusion as her body matures. Vivian suddenly has breasts and she doesn't particularly like them. Her development has literally become a spectator sport in her family. But without any female role models to help guide her, she becomes resentful of her own body and even sees a doctor about breast-reduction surgery.

Director/screenwriter Jenkins clearly likes her characters. She isn't out to poke fun at them. So while the settings and characters might sound like material for broad comedy, as in the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary, Jenkins takes a more sensitive approach. For example, Vivian's neighbor, Eliot, is a Charles Manson-obsessed pot dealer. However, as portrayed by Kevin Corrigan, Eliot is actually a sensitive guy who really cares about Vivian. He gives her the male respect that she is missing in her own family life. Likewise, her cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) is an anti-role model who has recently escaped from a detox center. When Murray asks her what she wants to do with her life (she's 29 years old), she stares blankly into space: "I guess I've never thought about it before." Rita's bleak future acquires a poignancy that actually helps Vivian see her own future more clearly.

Jenkins manages to straddle comedy and pathos simultaneously by feeding off of the confusion of the lead characters. She wants us to feel the despair of the Abramowitz's, but she also wants us to feel their hopefulness--where every move to a new apartment building brings hope for a better tomorrow. In every case, that hope is ultimately shot down, but the hope of a better life holds the family together and keeps them going.

One of the main reasons this movie works so well is the cast itself. Natasha Lyonne (who already has an impressive resume, including Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You) really comes into her own in Slums of Beverly Hills. Her face is marvelous. A lesser actress might have allowed hardness and cynicism to temper Vivian's emotional vulnerability. But Lyonne allows Vivian to emerge with her spirit unscathed. No less impressive are Marisa Tomei as Vivian's totally unresponsible cousin and Alan Arkin as Vivian's father. He doesn't have a clue how to be a good father, but that doesn't stop him from trying. And Kevin Corrigan nearly steals the movie. His Eliot is a total misfit, yet he's irresistibly charming at the same time. With roles in Goodfellas, True Romance, and Buffalo 66, Corrigan is quickly becoming one of the most impressive young actors in America. And rounding out the cast in supporting roles are Jessica Walter as Murray's new beau (she won't let him touch her), Carl Reiner as Murray's older brother, Mickey (who provides Murray with handouts and never lets him forget it), and Rita Moreno as Mickey's wife.

Slums of Beverly Hills is a wonderfully bizarre and funny movie that displays rare frankness in its portrayal of a dysfunctional family. Rarely has a movie provided such a sweet and strange picture of adolescent angst and sexual discovery.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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