It’s a sad Hollywood truism, but when it comes to movies adapted from popular books, the film versions are rarely equal to the original. And when the original work deals with the real experiences of a living person, well, the problems are often magnified. Such is the case with “Riding in Cars With Boys,” Beverly Donofrio’s 1990 autobiography about growing up a literate but “bad” girl and later a married but neglected teen-age mom. While fans of Donofrio’s unflinching memoir rightfully will be disappointed with the massive creative rewrite done to her bittersweet struggle, those unfamiliar with the original should find “Riding” a cinematic journey worth taking.
Much of the credit for the movie’s resonance belongs to the performances of stars Drew Barrymore and Steve Zahn. In her most thorough attempt at stardom as an adult, Barrymore credibly portrays Beverly from age 15 to 36. As the screenplay ambitiously shifts from past to present, we sit transfixed, as much by Barrymore’s depiction of a woman-child terribly riddled with self-destructive flaws as the movie’s dead-on depiction of the sights and sounds of each period of Beverly’s life. Barrymore’s Beverly never seems to grow up, despite the world’s attempts to make her. She’s a female Peter Pan, stuck in a Neverneverland of her own making who’s not quite sure how to break free, or even if she wants to.
As strong as Barrymore’s performance is, it is Zahn’s heartbreaking turn as loser husband and father, Ray, that steals the show — and our hearts. Known for playing outrageous “stoner” or “dimwitted” supporting roles in a handful of movies, here Zahn gives us a buffoonish but lovable jerk who, when the chips are down, always steps up and does the right thing.
Bursting with storylines and characters, “Riding” is constructed around a car trip by anxious new author Beverly and her now 20-year-old son, Jason (Adam Garcia). Screenwriter Morgan Upton Ward may have jettisoned much of Beverly’s “real” life in favor of an imagined, more comedic series of events, but she recognizes the efficacy of keeping the narrative framework intact. As mother and son travel toward a brighter future, flashbacks highlight their past. From how she met his father to her crucial relationship with best friend, Fay (Brittany “I’ll never tell” Murphy), to Beverly’s strict policeman dad (James Woods) and her anti-Italian cliche of a mamma (Lorraine Bracco), director Penny Marshall shows a deftness at keeping the emotional material from veering into unbridled melodrama.
As Beverly stumbles along from one mishap to the next, we are caught up in the overwhelming sadness of hugely missed opportunities. Sometimes we feel her pain, at other times, we just want to slap some sense into her. Occasionally, as in the scene where Barrymore’s Beverly tells Zahn’s Ray that she’s pregnant, we sit stunned by the genuine pathos created by the two actors. Zahn’s response vibrates with a mix of emotions simultaneously, registering his confusion, vulnerability and burgeoning self-knowledge that he doesn’t have it in him to be a husband, much less a husband and a father.
After the birth of Jason, Ray gets pushed out of the storyline, shifting the dramatic tension to the power struggle between mother and son. By the time he’s 8, Jason astutely sees himself as the parent in the household, assessing his mother as perpetually self-centered and often unsympathetic. Beverly’s view that his presence in the world is what holds her back from fulfilling her dream of getting a college education and developing as a writer may not be entirely wrong, just insensitive and callous. It is this conflict, in which both mother and son have compelling evidence to support their feelings, that sets “Riding” apart from other recent female coming-of-age movies. As the child raising the child, Barrymore finds her actor’s true north.
Donofrio’s book has been compared to a working woman’s Checkov, where a life is retold through the double lens of regret and bemusement. On that philosophical plane, Marshall and Word succeed in encapsulating a woman’s life that defies such stereotypical broad strokes and generalizations. “Riding In Cars With Boys” is a moving, zany and often unpredictable journey.
Movies are rated out of a possible 5