Side Dishes

Somebody please shoot me the next time I decide to attend a Herbert Ross movie. It seems like a century ago that the veteran hack made his best film, 1971's Play It Again, Sam. And even then the picture's success was undoubtedly attributable in greater measure to Woody Allen's contributions than to Ross's. After all, the movie was adapted from Allen's play and starred the bespectacled little schlemiel. Hell, I could have directed it, and it still would have been good.

Ross's career peaked in 1977 with The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl, both of which were otherwise mediocre films redeemed by marvelous, unconventional performances: Mikhail Baryshnikov's dancing in the former film, and Richard Dreyfuss's Academy Award-winning comic turn as a struggling actor forced to play a gay Richard III in the latter movie. More damningly, Ross is the culprit responsible for two of the wretchedest wastes of celluloid to find popular audiences in the Eighties: Flashdance and Footloose. And as if those tasteless, brainless schlockfests weren't enough to secure his place in filmmaking infamy, Ross perpetrated (directed is too kind a word) what may have been the prototypical weepy, contrived, cliche-ridden, politically correct women's film: the indefensible Steel Magnolias.

Like that 1989 poor woman's Terms of Endearment, Ross's new film, Boys on the Side, borrows heavily from another funnier, darker, edgier, all-round better predecessor: Thelma & Louise. At least this time out Ross has the grace to acknowledge the debt owed to his film's role model. Early on in Boys, Whoopi Goldberg's Jane, a lesbian lounge singer, alludes to the fate that awaited Thelma and Louise. After teaming up with two traveling companions (Robin and Holly) to serve a cretinous male his comeuppance, she tells her new pals, "I am not going over a cliff for you two, so just forget it."

Once again, Ross gets unexpected help from a cast that looks, on paper, like a disaster waiting to happen. When was the last time Whoopi Goldberg was actually funny in a movie? (Come to think of it, was she ever?) There are a few surprising moments here A nearly all of them in the early going A when Goldberg drops the wisecracking-world-weary-street-savvy-mama shtick and displays an appealing vulnerability. Flashes of acting ability are better than none at all. If you've seen either of the Sister Act movies, you know what I mean.

Jane has a tendency to develop killer crushes on straight women. Against all logic, she agrees to ride-share across country with Robin, "the whitest woman in America," played by Mary-Louise Parker. (Just in case the visual contrast between Goldberg and Parker isn't striking enough, the honky honey drives a minivan, worships the Carpenters, and forces Goldberg to watch The Way We Were. Subtlety? Who needs it?) Formula dictates that the two will clash at first, only to bond later on, and Ross is nothing if not a formula-followin' fool. Ross's accomplice, screenwriter Don Roos (Single White Female), stacks the melodrama deck by giving Parker's character a secret incurable illness (see if you can guess which one -- remember, this is a topical film). By the way, Parker's character is straight, so while you're pondering her illness, see if you can figure out what other layer of complication this adds to their interpersonal dynamic.

Ross and Roos aren't finished yet. Our intrepid duo stops in Pittsburgh (home of Flashdance!) to pick up Holly (Drew Barrymore), an old friend of Jane's. Holly is the token nymphet of the group. Of course, she has a secret, too. (Hey, these are the Nineties. No one has premarital sex without paying for it.) She also has an abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend who must be overcome and accidentally killed to generate tension when our intrepid trio hits the road.

Amazingly, the film works in spite of itself for a while. It's a sort of 3 Women meets Thelma & Louise via Fried Green Tomatoes, but the three stars defy the odds and drum up something akin to real chemistry. Barrymore, in particular, is a treat. But just when the film threatens to become interesting, Ross and Roos stop it dead in its tracks. Robin's illness kicks in, she is hospitalized, and the women are forced to spend a few months in Tucson while she convalesces. Like their road trip, the movie screeches to an immediate halt.

To say that this rickety vehicle gets stuck in idle would be hyping it. Boys on the Side runs out of gas, throws a rod, blows a tire, loses oil, rusts, rolls over, and dies. And I haven't even mentioned the nonsensical courtroom drama (which gives the filmmakers a chance to add Philadelphia to the list of films they rip off) or the ridiculously racially and ethnically harmonious lesbian cowboy bar where politically correct Tucsonians can dance to live sets by the Indigo Girls.

If you really want to see Herbert Ross at his pandering, button-pushing, manipulative worst, the last half hour of this film is your ticket. It's a treacly, phony, sentimental mess. The director couldn't have topped it if he'd had his entire cast hold hands, turn to the camera, and sing, "We are family/I got all my sisters with me!" But I suppose he had to hold something in reserve for his next project.

 
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