Boasting tour-de-force performances by its three leads, "Boys on the Side" possesses a flavor similar to "Fried Green Tomatoes" and might have the potential for that sort of box office harvest if Warner Bros. can get the word out amid all the Oscar hoopla.

Boasting tour-de-force performances by its three leads, “Boys on the Side” possesses a flavor similar to “Fried Green Tomatoes” and might have the potential for that sort of box office harvest if Warner Bros. can get the word out amid all the Oscar hoopla.

Indeed, given perennial complaints about the dearth of Oscar-worthy roles for women, “Boys” sends calendar-year ’95 off to an auspicious start, reinforcing Whoopi Goldberg’s dramatic credentials and Mary-Louise Parker’s rapid ascension toward major star status.

Director Herbert Ross — who has previously helmed fare focusing on female relationships in “The Turning Point” and “Steel Magnolias”– and writer Don Roos (“Single White Female”) certainly don’t shy away from the melodrama but also lighten the load with ample humor, much of that courtesy of Drew Barrymore’s vivacious presence as the most unlikely side of the pic’s central triangle.

“Boys” comes off the blocks looking like a road movie before veering into more dramatic and emotionally compelling territory. Beginning in New York, Jane (Goldberg), a semiemployed club singer, and Robin (Parker), an uptight real estate exec, meet by happenstance when they share a cross-country trip to Southern California. Along the way they detour to visit Jane’s friend Holly (Barrymore), who, after a brawl with her junkie boyfriend, joins the twosome.

The trip comes to a screeching halt in Tucson, however, when Robin falls ill, and the three settle into a sort of nonnuclear family — one of the twists being that Jane, a lesbian, may have a romantic interest in her stricken roommate.

Though the action and tone are all over the map at first, Ross’ direction and the stellar performances somehow create a real sense of tenderness and pathos, elevating what could almost pass as a bad sitcom premise to a higher emotional level exploring the strong familial bonds thatcan form between people (especially women) regardless of background.

The lesbian overtones — virtually eliminated from “Tomatoes” in the movie version — may make “Boys” seem unconventional, in the same way that “The Crying Game” was in depicting, in essence, a platonic love story. Yet even with those slightly different chords, Ross manages to pluck the right heartstrings, in the process delivering a grade-A tear-jerker.

Goldberg, who’s appeared in comedies of varying quality, reminds here of her impressive dramatic debut in “The Color Purple.” Still capable of generating laughs, she delivers a terrific performance, as does Parker.

Radiating a real star quality that hasn’t been adequately tapped in most of her previous vehicles, Barrymore is an absolute hoot as their flirty, doorknob-dumb pal. The supporting cast proves uniformly strong as well, with some particularly strong moments involving Anita Gillette as Robin’s mother.

“Boys” (which never explains its title but suggests various interpretations) also makes the most of its musical score, with a revival of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” that could put the song on the charts. Tech credits are tops, with kudos to the Parker makeup job.

Boys on the Side

(Comedy-drama -- Color)

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Le Studio Canal Plus, Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films presentation of a New Regency/Hera production. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Steven Reuther, Herbert Ross. Executive producers, Don Roos, Patricia Karlan. Co-producer, Patrick McCormick. Directed by Ross. Screenplay, Roos.

Crew

Camera (Duart color, Technicolor prints), Donald E. Thorin; editor, Michael R. Miller; music, David Newman; production design, Ken Adam; art direction, William F. O'Brien; set design, James Bayliss, Jann K. Engel, Stephen Berger; set decoration, Rick Simpson; costume design, Gloria Gresham; sound (Dolby), Jim Webb; assistant director, Barry Thomas; casting, Hank McCann. Reviewed at the GCC Galaxy Theater, Hollywood, Jan. 6, 1995. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 min.

With

Jane ... Whoopi Goldberg Robin ... Mary-Louise Parker Holly ... Drew Barrymore Abe ... Matthew McConaughey Alex ... James Remar Nick ... Billy Wirth Elaine ... Anita Gillette Massarelli ... Dennis Boutsikaris

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