Slums of Beverly Hills is the first feature by the young writer-director Tamara Jenkins, and it has its mild amusements. It's one of those movies that get bonus points for being "personal," bopping along from episode to episode as if the filmmaker were discovering her subject as she proceeded.
Jenkins developed the script at the Sundance Institute after studying film at NYU and working as a performance artist. In the summer of 1976, Murray Abramowitz (Alan Arkin), a divorced exile from the East Coast, moves with his three children in and out of cheapo apartments on the fringes of Beverly Hills in order to keep the kids in the school district. But Murray, with his teenage daughter Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) and two sons Ben (David Krumholtz) and little Rickey (Eli Marienthal), shows scant evidence of appreciating anything remotely resembling education. That may be the point: Education is a convenient alibi for status seeking.
Everybody in this film is outfitted with a cute eccentricity. Murray is fond of rousting his kids in the middle of the night and shunting them commando-style to the next crummy apartment, one slightly higher up the social ladder. His idea of a steak dinner is going to Sizzler. Ben is a wiseacre who seems to subsist on Trix breakfast cereal. He's like a stand-up comic in embryo -- he's always on. Rickey is his foil but he sometimes fights back, as in the scene when he pounds Ben for calling their father (rightly) a senior citizen. It's the most touching sequence in the movie, because it points up just how confused the boy is about having a father everybody keeps mistaking for his grandfather.
Vivian is supposed to carry the show, and the director pulls that off by bringing out parts of female experience we seldom see in a movie. One of the funniest recurring bits is the way the sudden blossoming of Vivian's bustline becomes the occasion for family gawking. She feels like a freakazoid, the star attraction in her own home. When her nutsy cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) moves in, she introduces Vivian to vibrators and the joys of disreputability. Rita has just left rehab, and she means to rehabilitate Vivian in the ways of the world. In a family circle with no other women, Rita, of all people, becomes Vivian's role model.
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With her bemused way of looking at family combat, Jenkins has created a film that is never less than enjoyable, but her ambitions here are so slim that at times the movie seems to vaporize before our eyes. She's modest to a fault, seldom doing justice to her best ideas. What, for example, do the kids actually think about their father's social climbing? The brood is made to seem oblivious to the Beverly Hills shimmer, but that doesn't ring true -- at least not for these kids. During a brief scene at the end with Rita's nouveau riche parents, we perk up -- the parents, after all, are played by those expert farceurs Rita Moreno and Carl Reiner. But they seem to exit almost as quickly as they enter, giving us only a lickety-split glimpse of what might have been. These actors know how to make gaudiness glow, and that's a glow this film truly needs.
Jenkins may be tiptoeing around an aspect of her movie that's too close for comfort. The upward mobility of Beverly Hills Jews is a target ripe for satire, but the film barely acknowledges it, even though it's the core of the story. Was she afraid to make the film "too Jewish"? But the more "Jewish" Slums of Beverly Hills is, the better it is. When Jenkins tries to make everything generic and loopy, the film seems fake (as in many of Tomei's scenes). Young filmmakers who bring the Italian-American experience to the screen are generally anything but shy about it. Why should the travails of upwardly mobile Jews, even in this wafer-thin, revue-sketch format, be bleached by misplaced good taste? Jewish humor is about how people are often at their best, their funniest and most vital, when they are at their worst. Slums of Beverly Hills could use a shot of chutzpah.
Slums of Beverly Hills.
Directed and written by Tamara Jenkins. Starring Natasha Lyonne, Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin, and David Krumholtz.