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The kitschy, colorful ’70s of Boogie Nights look great on film, but they are the product of nostalgia, a false memory that paints in the broad strokes of mock-embarrassing collective consciousness. The real ’70s of Southern California as most people lived them were less photogenic, with their vinyl-covered kitchen chairs, brushed-metal lamp trees, and knee socks with cutoffs. SoCal was the major repository for a horrible state-of-the-art building design crummy apartments above/carports below called “dingbats” by their unfortunate residents and by 14-year-old Vivian Abramowitz, the smart, dissatisfied, rapidly maturing voice at the center of a touching and uncliched comedy.
The mustard-and-avocado grunge of Slums of Beverly Hills isn’t a matter of just precision art direction, but of director Tamara Jenkins’ sensibility rigorous and comic, it informs the coming-of-age story with the same, often unpleasant, truthfulness as the setting. This is the last time Beverly Hills was thought of as a mythic wonderland, a small, unreachable Eden in the midst of Sodom. As the Abramowitz family cruises the palm-tree-lined avenues, they tell each other the city’s myths and fables centered around irrelevant film stars and their eccentricities which are just as alluring whether they’re true or made up on the spot; Beverly Hills accommodates any extravagance of imagination.
The Abramowitzes are on the run from a particularly tawdry dingbat where the rent is overdue. Father Murray (Alan Arkin) is a car salesman and former restaurant owner with a weakness for horse racing; son Ben (David Krumholtz) is a classic example of his type and times, the heterosexual theater queen; and Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) is a sarcastic innocent not yet burdened with cynicism, prone to hideous rashes of shame thanks to her unforgiving age and a pair of prematurely impressive breasts. Dad is determined to give his kids a Beverly Hills address and education, even if it means perching them in lousy apartments on the scrubbed edges of the city proper and borrowing money from his swaggering brother Mickey (Carl Reiner) to do so.
Murray lucks into a deal that compromises both sides of the family he’ll take in Mickey’s wild, naive, drug-addled daughter Rita (Marisa Tomei) in exchange for her “living expenses,” a sizable gift that enables the whole crowd to move into a fancy apartment complex called the Camelot. Rita’s problems trump the family’s: Though Murray can’t do much more for his own kids than join them for TV dinners in front of the set, bathrobes optional, the rapidly unraveling Abramowitzes are expected to clean Rita up and turn her into something respectable a nurse, she decides listlessly. Being a sprucely dressed caregiver is no patch on Rita’s real dream drinking a lot and marrying her vain actor boyfriend but it gives her hosts pool access and a chance to act like a real family.
Having been replaced as first daughter, Vivian ambles off to grow up on her own. Murray’s no help; he makes her wear a big, bulletproof bra under her halter top. Maturity, to her, is embodied in those troublesome breasts; a series of laundry-room encounters tracks their implications. She tests the response of men, or at least of Eliot, a pot-dealing, Charles Manson-obsessed dropout (Kevin Corrigan) with a puppyish yen for her, briskly allowing him to feel her up on top of the washers. In the posh building, she runs into a model-slender blonde her own age in coordinated Dittos, who tells Vivian that her own mother had a breast reduction done as a class move. “Large breasts are vulgar,” she tells a stunned Vivian, who never thought she had a choice.
Jenkins’ event-laden script which includes a deflowering, a couple of vibrator incidents, a drug overdose, and a knifing, or, rather, a forking is funny and heated, but her tone remains unjudgmental, even loving. In any other movie, Eliot’s C.V. would be cautionary, but here, he’s just an awkward outcast with immature tastes “You look really great in that T-shirt,” he tells Vivian, having honored her with a piece from his Manson collection and his attention to Viv does her no harm. Even though she’s hardly a mother substitute, Rita’s sticky contributions of by-default womanly knowledge and self-immolating habits help Vivian make choices by observation. The two cousins speak a private language, a difficult pig Latin variation that they employ in fraught situations, imparting to the film’s tough truths a feminine silliness and a sense that navigating the rapids of female maturation requires speaking in secret tongues.
For all its broad sitcom manner and offhand banter unsentimental Viv rolls her eyes at Ben’s theater dreams, calling Godspell “a stupid hippie leotard show” this movie does not tell lies. The real story about growing up smart and brave in a weird family involves no magical summers in which child becomes adult for all time. Here, girls lose their virginity in order to get it over with, and the threshold of maturity is that place where you discover that you’re stuck with your ridiculous family for life, so you might as well love them.
Hope Davis has a wonderful face. She can turn from plain to pretty just by changing the focus of her wise blue eyes. As Erin Castleton, the Boston hospital nurse who subjects herself to a string of ludicrous romantic experiments, Davis keeps those eyes wary they disguise her romantic resilience so that the wrong type of fellow will automatically read her as fragile. And with 64 personal-ad responses on her answering machine, Erin needs some interior threshing machine to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Next Stop Wonderland opens with an epic dumping Erin comes home to find her activist boyfriend Sean (Phil Hoffman) strapping their futon to the top of his car. He hands her a videotape elucidating the six things wrong with her, explaining that he’s left her the VCR even though he’s taken his TV set. Sean is a fool, but Erin doesn’t like to think of people as fools; she pushes against the world’s disgust with man-woman relationships even while the movie insists it’s a losing battle. When she and her co-workers dress up to entertain the ill children for Halloween, the punch line is the kids’ screaming in fear, but the real message is what everyone around Erin is telling her: Men are easy to trick or treat.
This cynical gloss is actually sentimentalism in self-protective gear, but Erin is neither cynical nor sentimental she’s a true skeptic. Her friends burble about destiny and love that was meant to be, which is arrant garbage to a woman who’s just seen her futon drive away. She believes in romance but not in fate, in bad relationships but not sweeping statements of their unworkability, and the film teases us with this idea of a pragmatist looking for love. Next Stop Wonderland is about the thin veils that fate throws up between Erin and her true love, a would-be marine biologist named Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant). They almost meet a dozen plausible times, but not until Erin undergoes a hilarious dating trial by fire.
Her mother, Piper (Holland Taylor), glibly rewrites the family history and pads Erin’s resume; it is she who has placed the misleading personal ad on her daughter’s behalf. The ensuing farce shows Erin interviewing her suitors by phone (with cuts to the hopefuls, one of whom is calling from the toilet) and a series of enlightening dates. Three guys, friends of Alan’s, bet on who will kiss her first, but their eagerness to come across as intellectuals betrays them. (That such a subplot can pass so easily and comically is evidence that Neil LaBute’s bitter romantic viewpoint in Your Friends & Neighbors is at least misplaced.) One good-looking gentleman almost erases that leery look of hers, until a wedding ring drops out of his wallet; she asks a handsome young black date to stop being a phony, at which he reads back her ad. “My mother wrote it,” she sighs. “Yeah?” he asks disgustedly. “What’s her number?”
Meanwhile, Alan works as a plumber and volunteer diver at the Boston aquarium he taunts sea turtles with lettuce trying to keep ahead of a nasty mob debt and away from his father, a gambling casualty no longer welcome at the racetrack. Although they still haven’t met, Erin and Alan seem to drift further apart when she takes up with a roguish Brazilian hunk (Jose Zuniga); he woos her with the bossa nova music she loves, but when he starts murmuring about destiny you can see the alarms going off in her head. Next Stop Wonderland is brash and breezy, its Boston locations hospitals, schools, a graveyard, the train nicely pedantic. Director Brad Anderson (who also co-wrote with Lyn Vaus) has a light touch and a keen eye for folly, and this, his second feature, is a quiet, extremely funny little earthquake within its genre a romantic comedy with no patience for stardust.