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SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS(director/writer: Tamara Jenkins; cinematographer: Tom Richmond; editor: Pamela Martin; cast: Natasha Lyonne (Vivian Abramowitz), Alan Arkin (Murray Abramowitz), Marisa Tomei (Rita Abramowitz), Kevin Corrigan (Eliot), Carl Reiner (Mickey Abramowitz), Rita Moreno (Belle Abramowitz), David Krumholtz (Ben Abramowitz), Jessica Walter (Doris), Eli Marienthal (Ricky Abramowitz); Runtime: 91; Fox Searchlight; 1998)
“A sharp-witted, biting screwball comedy about a semi-dysfunctional family.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The heroine in this wacky autobiography learns the hard way that it pays to be unique, even if that might require an acceptance of being unhappy in her current family situation. The film’s tone is set with a quote from Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”

“Slums” is a sharp-witted, biting screwball comedy about a semi-dysfunctional family who have some problems that prevents them from being happy, but not the kind of problems that can’t be overcome. Alan Arkin as Murray Abramowitz is a riot as a dour 65-year-old car salesman, who after his divorce has been given custody of the two boys and a girl: the high school student Ben (David); the elementary school student Ricky (Eli); and, the vivacious 15-year-old girl, a soon-to-be freshman in the high school, Vivian (Natasha). Her coming-of-age experiences during the summer of 1976 will be the focus of the film. Her wide-eyed and aghast looks at what she sees happening to her are what give this film its particular flavor, and her comical and sad observations about life often hit their target.

For the father, there are two things important about raising children: they are to get a good education and live at the right address. The economically struggling Jewish family lives in Beverly Hills, even if it is only on the outskirts of town and in housing that is not quite up to snuff. The price they pay for having a Beverly Hills address is that they live like nomads, often sneaking out of their flea-bag apartments in the dead of night rather than paying their rent. Murray is so obsessed with this idea of having a Beverly Hills zip, that he fails to see how he is ruining his family with his unchanging ways.

Tamara Jenkins’ amusing autobiographical “Slums of Beverly Hills” is an engaging story that centers on a young girl first becoming acquainted with her body, her body functions, and her encounters with sex. She does all this as she learns to live with a household of obnoxious males: a nosy father, an older brother who is an aspiring actor and a wiseacre, and a younger brother innocently asking impertinent questions. Murray is a brash, intrusive, and insensitive single-parent, who means well but overextends his good intentions and fails to see his mistakes in time.

The film opens as the father takes his daughter to buy her first bra. She is concerned that her breasts have as her father says, “sprouted overnight.” Breasts become a big part of the story as Vivian doesn’t know quite how to handle her newly found riches thinking she is cursed, even going to a noted Hollywood plastic surgeon for a “breast reduction” consultation; but at other times, she is proud that it attracts so much attention from the opposite sex.

Moving into their new apartment which is no different from the “cheap apartment” they just left she meets Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), the flirtatious kid who lives in the next apartment and who is immediately attracted to her breasts. When she asks the seemingly historical-minded Charles Manson T-shirt clad Eliot what high school he goes to, he tells her “I dropped out of school because I wanted to join the workforce.” She asks: “Doing what?” And he replies: “Selling pot.” He will get to be the first to feel her up, because as she says this is not a serious relationship, it is just a “building thing.”

With things not going so well for the Abramowitz family, Murray sees a way out as his rich brother Mickey (Carl Reiner) has a troubled 29-year-old daughter Rita (Marisa Tomei) who just ran away from a drug rehab program and can’t be controlled. He is willing to pay Murray to take her in with his family and see if he can straighten her out. This results in Murray getting Rita into a nursing program and him taking his family to live in a posh Beverly Hills place at Mickey’s treat; this is the first time the family is in an apartment they are not embarrassed to be at.

Tomei gives a wonderfully over-the-top performance as a lost soul, who brings her quirky antics into a household that is trying to act like “people” but can’t seem to make it. She becomes buddies with Vivian, telling her that she is pregnant and speaking with her in a gibberish pig language which only they can understand. She becomes the big sister and the female friend she desperately needs in the male house and the one who is hip to things girls are curious about, no matter how loopy she is. Also, in one madcap sketch, she teaches the young girl the benefits of dancing around in a nightgown with an extra-large vibrator.

The family sees Beverly Hills through the demo luxury car Murray uses to transport them after each move, as the kids look out the window and identify the houses where the stars live. They are usually on their way for a steak breakfast at Sizzlers, something the father splurges for thinking that meal will keep the kids fit.

Naturally things don’t work out according to Murray’s plans. Rita accurately observes that Murray and her are similar, they are both screw ups who can’t change their errant ways. After one hectic day of nursing school, she realizes that she is not fit for that vocation.

The two families meet in a diner as Mickey wishes to see what results he has gotten for paying Murray’s expenses, he becomes anxious to question Rita about what she has learned. But Mickey can’t help being crude and ridiculing Murray in front of his children. Murray is served with a barrage of caustic comments by his brother, who repeatedly reminds him how he is a failure and a bum and that if it weren’t for his generosity his kids wouldn’t have clothes on their backs and wouldn’t be fed. This is too much for the vibrant Vivian to hear as she sticks a fork into her uncle’s leg, and so ends their bourgeoisie digs. This scene was funny, but it was also very hurtful. It touched on all the nerves that made this into an intense dramatic scene that worked so well because the script was tight and the actors were well-cast, with especially Natasha Lyonne as the girl who was always being surprised as she tries to find out who she is. Natasha gives off hope that she will come out of this childhood experience scarred but not beaten down, and will be ready in the future to make her way in the world and embrace what her parents have given her instead of feeling sorry for herself. Natasha has a zeal which Alan Arkin plays off as he wisely plays his downbeat role with an eye for comedy, making all those around him blossom.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”