Slums of Beverly Hills June 4, 2020
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
lums of Beverly Hills (1998), a droll, 1976-set family comedy from writer-director Tamara Jenkins, follows the nomadic Abromowitz clan, led by grumpy 65-year-old patriarch Murray (Alan Arkin). He's a single dad to three kids: rascally elementary-schooler Rickey (Eli Marienthal), pothead high-schooler and eldest Ben (David Krumholtz), and the jaded Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), who is 14 but on
account of her weariness seems way older.
The Abromovitzes are relentlessly dysfunctional, mostly because of Murray's stubborn pride and an ill-judged pursuit of "the best" for his children. He does things his and only his way; he doesn’t care much if what feels right to him is unsustainable. Murray is vehemently against retiring; instead he commits himself to a gig as an Oldsmobile salesman. (He frequently asks his affluent older brother Mickey, played by Carl Reiner, for financial help when the goings get especially rough.) Murray insists he and the kids live in Beverly Hills so that they can attend its ritzy private schools. To save money, he continually moves the family from one cost-effective apartment complex to another. They pack up everything and go to the next place with such frequency that it wouldn’t be a surprise if at the end of the decade, Murray announced that the Abromovitzes had lived in every affordable apartment building in the region. When a new month’s rent is due, it’s usually time to move on; a maximum stay might be about three months.
Murray is so smitten with this way of living, thinking it will be more beneficial in the long run than it actually is, that he’s never given much thought about the emotional toll it could take on his kids. Yet this bound-to-be-damaging dysfunction — aside from a couple of pretty bleak character choices on Jenkins’ part — is steeped more in tragicomedy than outright darkness in Slums of Beverly Hills. It’s been successfully fashioned by Jenkins, who based a lot of it on her own childhood, as a funny coming-of-age tale whose laughs leave bruises. It’s the screen equivalent of a particularly blackhearted sitcom.
Slums of Beverly Hills functions as something of a turning point especially for Vivian, from whom the movie gets its point of view. As the film opens, she's started her period and developed breasts she hates so much that in the middle of the movie, she goes to a plastic surgeon, alone, inquiring about a reduction. She also begins developing an interest in sex. Around the same time, Rita (Marisa Tomei), Mickey’s aimless 29-year-old daughter, has escaped rehab, and is virtually adopted by Murray so that he can manipulate Mickey into getting the family into a nicer, more long-term place. The feature above all revolves around the sexual relationship Vivian initiates with a neighbor — recent high-school dropout and now drug dealer Eliot (Kevin Corrigan) — and her “babysitting” of Rita, whom she's informally tasked with keeping an eye on. (Rita says she intends to get into nursing school; she’s also secretly pregnant, and the father is a bum actor about whom she only tells Vivian.)
The feature ends nowhere that optimistic or conclusive. After Mickey publicly skewers Murray’s dependencies at a family dinner, the Abromovitzes, no longer with his helping hand at their beck and call, pack up once again and have only a meal at Sizzler to look forward to. (A stop at the restaurant, Vivian says via a voiceover, has shown her and her siblings time and time again that the family is just one step closer to "home," wherever that may be.) By this point, Jenkins has gotten us to like the scattered family so much that if the movie didn’t end there, we’d want to keep following their story. Dysfunctions aside, there’s a cockeyed warmness and familiarity to the family dynamic. The ensemble pushing it all forward is uniformly excellent, although Lyonne is so exceptional — she turns feigning bewilderment into an art form — that she predominantly is the person who makes the movie worth pursuing. B+