‘Riding in Cars’ with self-pity

Penny Marshall’s film, which I saw on video last weekend, has a few funny moments to recommend it, and the performances are generally first-rate. Steve Zahn is particularly good as the no-good boyfriend/husband who just can’t help being helpless. But at least he’s pretty straightforward about it. His character is poignant because he’s aware of, but still unwilling, to correct his central flaws as a human being.

The same cannot be said of Drew Barrymore‘s turn. She is, firstly, unconvincing as the older Beverly D’Onofrio. While she becomes a mother at 15, she honestly does not look like anything more than an older sister to the 20-year-old version of her son played by Adam García. Secondly, her character is simply unlikable. She is self-involved and refuses to take responsibility for her decisions, to the point of blaming her son for her situation.

She blames her parents, her boyfriend and ultimately her son for getting in the way of her dream of being a writer. And then she finally achieves that dream by spinning gold out of the pain she created for herself and selling the movie rights. I don’t begrudge anyone a living, and perhaps her memoir has layers of depth not presented in the movie, but it’s pretty revolting.

Now, I imagine that’s why Barrymore wanted to tackle the role. Accustomed to cutesy roles in such middling films as “Never Been Kissed” (directed by Penny‘s brother, Garry) and “Home Fries,” she was probably looking for something a little meatier. And there’s no doubt that the movie encompasses some serious subjects: teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, irresponsible parenting, etc.

The major problem is that Marshall and Barrymore want to bring in the emotionally disturbing material for gravitas but don’t want to dwell on it too long before getting to the next heartwarming moment of misbegotten motherhood. While I don’t think that the humor should have been left out entirely, it would have been more effective if the overall tone of the movie had been more serious. Beverly D’Onofrio’s character is not lovable or just one more woman struggling to make it — she made serious mistakes that made her life and, more importantly, her son’s life incredibly difficult. That is tragic and it should be treated with the requisite seriousness.

That D’Onofrio and her son seemed to have made it through is more of a miracle than anything else. In the end, the repugnance of D’Onofrio’s character was not redeemed by anything else the film had to offer.