A tough, flinty and unpredictable real life has been softened and unevenly dramatized in “Riding in Cars With Boys.” Based on but never to be confused with Beverly Donofrio’s autobiographical account of growing up a literate but “bad” girl in Wallingford, Conn., and coping with being a married but neglected teen mom, this is one of the stranger cases of Hollywood tackling a true story of a living person and virtually rewriting every chapter while preserving only the broadest strokes. Donofrio’s presence as a co-producer suggests scripter Morgan Upton Ward’s massive reworking of her life went forth with her approval, but the result under Penny Marshall’s direction is a film with genuinely serious intentions that falls considerably short of its intentions. While Drew Barrymore makes her most thorough gesture toward fully adult movie stardom with a character riddled with self-destructive flaws, she’s ultimately outshone by a magnificently heartbreaking performance by Steve Zahn as her loser husband. A drama with slight comic inflections may be in keeping with the autumnal moviegoing mood, but excess length and awkward pacing will subdue B.O. into calmer midrange numbers.
Donofrio’s book is like working-class Chekhov, life as told through a double prism of regret and amusement, a mixture that’s also the stamp of producer James L. Brooks. More akin to the novelistic aspects of Brooks’ “Broadcast News” than anything Marshall has directed or produced, “Riding in Cars” uneasily tries to encapsulate a life that resists encapsulating, and the more it substitutes Donofrio’s true account — pulsing with the stuff that makes great movie scenes — with invented material, the less a piece of cinematic Chekhov the movie becomes.
In spanning the years 1961-86, pic runs into visible problems within the first eight minutes, which begin with a sweet seven-minute prologue, when 11-year-old Beverly (a vivacious Mika Boorem) shows off her knowledge of sex to younger sis Janet (Celine Marget) and more boldly to her policeman dad (James Woods), who seems to be her best pal until she starts talking about her growing boobs.
A flash-forward to ’86 — with Beverly (Barrymore) now 36 and excitedly holding the uncorrected proof of her book (the very one this movie is based on) in her hands while her 20-year-old son Jason (Adam Garcia) drives — is distinctly unconvincing: For all her makeup and grownup airs, Barrymore barely looks 30, and more like 15 months than 15 years older than Garcia. These awkward jumps to the present, narrated by Jason repeatedly disrupt the story’s flow and do little to deepen the family saga.
Back in ’65, Beverly experiences a fateful encounter at a high school party with ultra-slacker Ray Hasek (Zahn) during which Ray defends her honor; afterwards, they make out in the front seat while Beverly’s gal-pal Fay (Brittany Murphy) makes time with her beau Bobby (Desmond Harrington) in the back. Soon Beverly is rehearsing with Fay how she will tell her mom (Lorraine Bracco) that she’s pregnant.
Beverly also has to tell Ray, and the film takes on an unexpected streak of real pathos when he responds with a welter of confused, vulnerable, half-formed feelings that reveal a young guy who knows his profound limitations, but keeps violating them anyway. With an expressiveness that his previous dimwit performances barely hinted at, Zahn recalls the young Jack Lemmon when he shifted into more dramatic gear while keeping the human core of his comic persona intact; thesp makes Ray not just the most complicated and human character in sight but, finally, a tragic figure.
As Beverly stumbles along from one mishap to another, there’s a growing sense of hugely lost opportunities. A hasty wedding sequence is hackneyed and hobbled from start to finish, while the early phases of Ray’s and Beverly’s marriage in public housing are never as funny as intended nor as frantic and unbalanced as Donofrio herself describes them.
After the birth of Jason (instead of the girl Beverly dreamed of), Ray’s chronic unemployment and other problems push him out of the story — but not before Zahn says an affecting goodbye to Jason.
The tension shifts to a tug-of-war between mother and son, who sees her as perpetually self-centered and, by the time he’s 8 (Logan Lerman), considers himself the parent in the household. Beverly’s view that Jason has held her back from fulfilling her dream of a college education and developing as a writer isn’t entirely wrong, but utterly callous; it’s this conflict, in which both characters have a case, that sets the picture at least a margin apart from most of its studio-generated peers.
Ward’s script doesn’t really take the battle anywhere, though: Jason, whether he’s 8 or 20, repeats the same gripes about Mom, and she shoots right back, making it all the more amazing that Jason has grown up as well-adjusted as he has. Zahn comes to the rescue one last time as the ’86 flash-forward journey arrives at the front door of his trailer home, where Beverly wants him to sign a waiver so her book can be published. The plan is nearly scuttled by Ray’s latest wife (Rosie Perez, in a brief perf), but even though Ray does the right thing, it is Zahn’s wasted, bleached face that haunts the film to its closing credits.
Playing Beverly at all ages is a dangerous game for Barrymore, and she is vastly more comfortable in the middle sections through the late ’60s and early ’70s than as a mature woman whose arrogant preening smacks of pure fakery. As a child raising a child, Barrymore finds her acting voice perhaps more than ever before, and it hints at what she could create with more nuanced writing and direction.
Murphy is infinitely more enjoyable here than in her actorish turn in “Don’t Say a Word,” while Garcia is frustratingly plain as the grownup Jason. Bracco works instinctively against every Italian mama cliche as Mrs. Donofrio, though Woods seems miscast as a father whose hostility toward Beverly is mysteriously underdeveloped.
Marshall’s regular lenser, Miroslav Ondricek, goes for a pronounced grainy, glum and underlit look that is by far the movie’s most daring artistic stroke. Period production is perhaps too careful and pointed, as Hollywood sagas spanning recent decades often are.