A notch or two above the level of a TV sitcom, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” Tamara Jenkins’ semi-autobiographical feature directorial debut, is a bawdy, extremely broad comedy about an eccentric, downwardly mobile Jewish family, centering on the coming of age of a bright adolescent girl (a lovely perf by debutante Natasha Lyonne). Rude, vulgar and sporadically funny, this Fox Searchlight release should play well with young urban dwellers, but is less likely to excite more mature and discriminating viewers due to its rough surface and mediocre execution.
Set in 1976, this very ’70s movie is conceived in the vein of the neurotic Jewish comedies made by Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner (who plays a part in the picture), with two notable exceptions: The story is refreshingly told from a female p.o.v., and it’s not nearly as accomplished, poignant or funny as the works of the aforementioned directors.
Head of this yarn’s dysfunctional clan is benevolent patriarch Murray (Alan Arkin), a single, divorced father in constant search of a better lifestyle for his three children. Subscribing to the belief that “furniture is temporary, but education is forever,” Murray’s goal is to keep his family in the Beverly Hills school district, though he can only afford to live on the fringes of the otherwise lush town.
When the story begins, the Abramowitzes are moving yet again to a cheap one bedroom apartment in a run-down complex. As the household’s only female, Vivian (Lyonne) gets the bedroom, where she spends most of her time observing, and being observed by, her two brothers. Almost all the jokes in the first reel concern Vivian’s large bosom. Her blossoming alarms her, to the point where she considers surgical reduction. It also vastly upsets her conservative father, whose constant refrain is, “Put on a brassiere.”
Considerable color is added to the bumpy tale by Rita (Marisa Tomei), the wild daughter of Murray’s wealthy brother, Mickey (Carl Reiner), who has supported the Abramowitzes for decades, and by Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), Vivian’s Charles Manson-obsessed neighbor who, like all the others, becomes fascinated with Vivian’s breasts. A screwup and embarrassment to her family, the just-out-of-drug-rehab Rita moves in with her uncle, soon becoming Vivian’s “role model.”
Jenkins, who developed her script at the Sundance Institute, has some good comic ideas. But to captivate the audience, she seems to go out of her way to use profane lingo and outrageous situations that don’t always work. Central set piece is a scene in which Vivian is introduced by Rita to a vibrator and goes on to play with it. As funny as this sequence is, it’s not particularly well staged and it goes on far too long, like many of pic’s subsequent jokes. In general, Jenkins’ approach is heavy-handed, her orchestration of visual and verbal gags lacking discipline and sensitivity to tempo.
Well-cast newcomer Lyonne, who also narrates, holds center screen with ease and considerable chutzpah, often raising the comedy above the writing. Spunky and sexy, Tomei is more subdued than she usually is.
Playing a 65-year-old man, way too old to have such young kids, Arkin is pro in a role that he could have played in his sleep. Rest of the cast, which includes Rita Moreno as Mickey’s wife and Jessica Walter as Murray’s neurotically fastidious g.f., is decent.
Notwithstanding Tom Richmond’s lensing, which effectively evokes the time and place, other tech credits are modest.