Monday, December 08, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

Slums of Beverly Hills is Tamara Jenkins' semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the mid-70s while living in various rundown "dingbats"—box-like cheap-o apartments with fancy-sounding names like "Casa Bella," that sprouted mushroom-like throughout California during the 50s and 60s. Natasha Lyonne is Vivian Abromowitz, soon-to-be freshman at Beverly Hills High. Alan Arkin is her car salesman dad, Murray, who struggles mightily to keep his three kids within the Beverly Hills school district by renting its cheapest apartments just inside the city limits. When rent is over-due, which is often, Vivian and her two brothers are packed into the family station wagon in the middle of the night, hightailing it to the next available apartment.

Just the combination of Lyonne and Arkin alone makes for supreme casting, but Slums... hosts a ridiculously rich company of comedic actors, including David Krumholtz as would-be thespian pothead brother, Ben, and the always-great Kevin Corrigan as a neighbor who's obsessed with Charles Manson and is something of a love-interest for Vivian. Not a full-on love interest, because Vivian is more interested in exploring her own sexuality than connecting with some guy across the hall who dropped out of high school to become a drug dealer. Vivian's ability to view sex as its own outcome rather than a love connection, is one of this movie's modern conceits. The sexual revolution was in full effect by the mid-seventies and Jenkins doesn't bow to romantic movie tropes about teenage girls and their inner desires. What Vivian desires is to settle down in one place long enough to have an actual home. But since Murray describes his family as Nomads, that's not likely to happen any time soon.

With her tremendous pie-eyes and mounds of red hair, Lyonne could just make facial expressions on-camera and be riveting, but she has so many innate comic gifts going for her. It's  good to see her career pick up again in Orange is the New Black (where she shines once more). As Vivian, who has seemingly developed breasts "overnight," she's forced to go from tomboy to object-of-desire in one summer. Lyonne's galumphing walk and plaintive stare indicate Vivian's humiliation throughout an array of uncomfortable scenarios—forced to wear a bra with a halter top, potential plastic surgery confusion, and the fallout from unexpected menstrual bleeding.

Slums... is a precursor to our current comedy of mortification, but unlike much of today's comedy, Vivian is not the butt of the joke. Although she has no sexual experience or even knowledge of half the things the adults around her refer to, she covers up her ignorance and soldiers on. And she's most often the voice of reason in a world full of dingbats. Jenkins recognizes that young people may be inexperienced, but they're not stupid.

And now:

Vivian has no choice but to surrender to the demands of early puberty. Her dad insists she buy her first bra. What an awful time, puberty.

Vivian's parents are divorced and for reasons unexplained, mom lives on the east coast. A series of maternal and not-so-maternal characters flit in and out of the story to guide Vivian through this awkward phase. The bra saleslady assures us that "breasts are beautiful!"

But Vivian's not buying it.

Ah, Los Angeles. I lived there briefly in 1970 and it looked just like this. One of the great achievements of this little comedy is the set design, and the recognition that families struggled economically throughout the decade. People didn't look "cool." They mostly looked everyone in this movie.

National treasure, Alan Arkin, as Murray—on the pay phone


An upscale dingbat

An Abromowitz family portrait featuring Vivian's iconic blowdryer-halter-first-bra-cutoffs-tube-sock gunslinger look.

Everyone in this cast is so game for anything. How hard you laugh at Ben's rehearsal scene for "Guys and Dolls" is a barometer for how much you'll enjoy the deadpan comedy stylings of this film.

Things get more squirrely when adorable but drug-addled cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) escapes from rehab and is taken in by her Uncle Murray so the family can afford to live off her wealthy father's allowance. A recipe for disaster? Oh, most assuredly.

Marisa Tomei is always charming and so underrated

Though she's worldly, Rita is not wise. Here she introduces Vivian to her "boyfriend." Another memorable musical scene ensues.

Kevin Corrigan, as Eliot. Corrigan is one of those "where have I seen him before?" character actors who can play oddball or menacing, often both at once. The secret is his excellently modulated voice, and his intense eye-stare.

More greatness—veteran actor Jessica Walter as Doris, Murray's "nice, normal" lady-friend who wants him around as a (paid?) companion.

And check it out, Carl Reiner and Rita Moreno show up as Rita's parents. Jenkins has said that between takes, conversation between Arkin, Reiner and Moreno around this table scene was incredible—all stories of past shoots and movie lore. She wishes she had taped it and so do I. What a dream cast. She also says it was a very stressful shoot, which I can imagine. It was her first feature and look at all these veterans, along with young quirky up-and-coming youngsters (Lyonne was only 18). Plus the weirdness of a period piece from a very weird period.

There's some clunky narrative issues with this film. Murray is supposed to be flawed, but some of his behavior is jarring and makes for darker conflict where conflict isn't needed. Characters find and lose each other rather abruptly, but that's in keeping with the time. It was a coming-apart-at-the-seams era where family boundaries burst and people had to figure out how to keep going without a social template to follow.

A Beverly Hills dream deferred.

One more family portrait. I'll always treasure Vivian's bravery in the face of teenage mortification. I can't think of another movie that faces teen-girl sexuality and oncoming womanhood with such a baleful earthy stare-down.


1 comment:

linda mcelroy said...

Thanks Lisa, this movie is definitely on my list for my next girlfriends getaway weekend. Let me know if you have any more recommendations!