Vivian's family are penniless nomads, moving from one cheap flat to another in Beverly Hills so she and her brothers can attend the city's schools. Uncle Mickey sends them money to survive. When Mickey's daughter Rita runs away from an asylum, Vivian's dad offers shelter to her if Mickey will pay for a plush flat. Vivian must babysit her adult cousin, making sure she gets to nursing school and avoids pills and booze. But Vivian has her own problems: she's curious about sex, likes an older neighbor kid, has inherited her mother's ample breasts, and wants a family that doesn't embarrass her. Can she help Rita, keep Uncle Mickey happy, and feel OK about her body and her family? Written by
For a long time, the depiction of the family unit in movies and on television was for the most part a sanitized, idealized representation, from movies like the Mickey Rooney `Andy Hardy' series and William Powell's `Life With Father,' to the totally stereotypical versions presented on TV in such shows as `Ozzie and Harriet' and `Father Knows Best,' which were entertaining, perhaps, but set standards that in reality were simply unattainable; a reflection of real life these movies/shows were not. There was the occasional film like `Rebel Without A Cause' or `The Young Savages,' which certainly explored conflicted individuals, but the focus was not on the `family unit' per se. Then gradually, all of that began to change; filmmakers evolved and the screen did begin to more accurately reflect the family dynamic in very real terms, for better or worse, and in 1998, `Slums of Beverly Hills,' written and directed by Tamara Jenkins hit the screen, with a depiction of the family unit that's about as honest as it gets.
Murray Abromowitz (Alan Arkin) is 65 years old, divorced and raising three kids on his own. A car salesman, Murray is currently in a `slump.' In point of fact, however, his whole life has been one long slump. But he's determined that his children, Ben (David Krumholtz), Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) and Rickey (Eli Marienthal), are going to get a good education, and that means keeping them in the best schools. And that means living in Beverly Hills. It's one of the most `upscale' communities in the world, but he doesn't have to be rich to take advantage of the educational opportunities; as long as they live within the city limits, the kids stay enrolled. It's all a matter of having the right zip code. But there's the rub; it's just not as easy as it sounds, because even living on the periphery of Beverly Hills cannot be successfully effected without `means,' and `assets' of any kind are decidedly not a part of Murray's personal resume.
Which means there has to be a plan. And Murray's plan is very simple: You stay one step ahead of the landlord and the monthly rent and you're home free. Which means moving. A lot. As in slipping out in the middle of the night with only as much as you can carry and moving on to the next `dingbat' apartment. And so is goes with the Abromowitz family, living a nomadic existence as part of a very real sub-culture in one of the richest areas on the planet. It's hard, but the kids are getting the education. Murray, however, suddenly has something else to deal with: Vivian, who is about to enter her freshman year at high school. And she is not a `little' girl anymore.
To tell her semi-autobiographical story, writer/director Jenkins has crafted and delivered a thoroughly engrossing film steeped in nuance and gritty realism. It's an incisive portrait of how a dysfunctional family can survive by establishing parameters which allow them to get from point A to point B on a daily basis, and what it takes to maintain the kind of internal support system that enables them to function and stay together, though individually their goals and aspirations may be pulling them in opposite directions. it goes far in disproving the idea that a family in perpetual crisis must necessarily disintegrate.
The story is told through the eyes of Vivian, which gives the film a decidedly personal resonance, as it is obvious that this is where Jenkins' heart resides. And it presents a mature perspective that effectively dispels the stereotypical characterization of the self-absorbed teen mired in the throes of paralyzing angst, which adds considerable credibility to this character driven comedy/drama. Jenkins also successfully captures an entirely genuine `sense' of the whole Abromowitz's environment; the look, texture and `feel' of the film is a reflection of reality, so much so that you can almost actually detect the scent of the apartments, the steaks cooking at Sizzler or that familiar clean/warm smell of the laundry room. An exceptionally insightful film, it sheds some light on the invisible threads that hold us together and keep the myriad facets of our society connected.
What really brings this one to life, though, is the performances Jenkins exacts from her exceptional cast of actors, beginning with Lyonne, who so perfectly embodies the character of Vivian. This is the pivotal part of the film, and with her `natural' presence Lyonne delivers a convincing portrayal through which she precisely conveys exactly what she's thinking and feeling with a combination of facial expressions, body language and simply the inflection of her voice.
As Murray, Arkin gives an extremely affecting and introspective performance, creating a character with whom many in the audience are going to be able to relate and identify on one level or another, as he taps into that sense of not quite being able to figure out how it all works, even after doing it day after day for sixty-five years. In Murray we see a very accurate reflection of the on-going process of sorting out `life'-- a process that, in reality, never ends. It's a performance that takes into account the inherent flaws of being human; it makes us realize that none of us are perfect, but that it's okay-- we just have to keep trying.
One of the finest character actors in the business, indy favorite Kevin Corrigan turns in an effective, understated and unassuming performance as Eliot, the guy with whom Vivian has a `building thing' relationship.
Also giving a memorable performance is Marisa Tomei, as Murray's niece, Rita, who is deliciously tacky and adds some real spice to the film. Her portrayal is earthy and utterly believable, and like Arkin's Murray, is an honest reflection of how most people grapple with the uncertainties of life.
`Slums of Beverly Hills' is a viable exploration of the human condition; a film that helps us understand who we are, and why.
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