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Where the Boys Aren't

Listen, this is a movie that uses Carpenters songs and makes you like them. Oh, and Boys on the Side uses flashbacks from The Way We Were and makes them work. Pay no attention to the TV ads and previews; this is not a road movie with chicks. These women settle down and get serious. The women are Robin (Mary-Louise Parker), Jane (Whoopi Goldberg) and Holly (Drew Barrymore), the slut-muppet.

These women start out on the road, all making an escape from the East Coast for their own reasons. Robin, a successful real-estate agent, is fleeing in simple panicked flight. But in her patrician style, she advertises for a driver. Jane, fed up with failing as a singer, answers the ad. Robin thinks they're "very compatible." Jane thinks Robin's nuts, and says she's not driving across the country with "the whitest woman on earth."

While they're arguing, Jane's car is towed. Lacking the $200 it would take to recover it, and lacking any other options, she goes along for the ride. Pittsburgh is the pair's first destination; they stop off to visit Jane's friend Holly. The heretofore seemingly wimpy Robin is shocked and appalled by Holly's domestic situation. Using brass-balls negotiation skills, she convinces Holly's significant other to stop slapping her around. Unfortunately, when the brute does pause, Holly clobbers him with a baseball bat and there's one more for the road.

In the first-fifth of the movie, this trio crosses half the country. Then they settle down in Arizona for some old-fashioned movie-matinee melodrama. Herbert Ross, director of squishy movies such as The Turning Point, The Goodbye Girl and Steel Magnolias, claims his goal here was to make a thoroughly modern, excruciatingly PC feel-good movie. Luckily, he fails miserably. Boys on the Side does not, as Ross claims, "reflect a world which is multiethnic, a world brimming with variations of race and creed, a world with diverse sexual preferences." Boys on the Side isn't a reflection of any real world. Instead, its decorative flickering reflects the aesthetics of a "women's movie," a women's movie in the Crawford/Davis/Stanwyck sense of the term. A real three-handkerchief movie.

Jane's being a lesbian isn't interesting -- she's interesting because she's willing to camp out in her friend's hospital room. Robin's specific disease doesn't matter -- what matters is that she suffers beautifully. Holly is bouncing around, as the girly girl, just to remind us that, despite all their heroics, our heroines are simply girls like the rest of us, the rest of us being legions of women who will weep contentedly at each delicious tragedy and triumph.

Mary-Louise Parker shows us how in the early scenes. In a hotel room somewhere before Pittsburgh, Robin forces Jane to watch The Way We Were. Jane, funky urban musician, stifles laughter while Robin, Miss Priss, turns on the tears. Even then, even when Robin admits to admiring the work of Karen Carpenter, there's evidence that she's far more complex than she appears.

Parker is astonishing. From the movie's first frame, the inner struggles of her repressed, very careful character are always clear. And when she begins to ... well you know how dread diseases bring out the best in movie characters ... when Robin begins to blossom, Parker is absolutely radiant. In one memorable scene, set apres party in the Arizona house's kitchen, the earthy Jane is teaching her friend to use more matter-of-fact terms than "down there." The frail, elegantly ill Robin doesn't simply say the word "cunt." She sings the word, shivers at her own daring and then sings again, trills and dances.

In the moment of that graceful, private dance, the woman expresses a wealth of emotions -- emotions that surround, as they say in 12-step parlance, putting it all behind you and going forward.

Goldberg is fine as the supportive friend, although her piano playing and singing leave a lot to be desired. Drew Barrymore, as Holly, has little to do but smile, giggle and fuck things. Barrymore's limited talents are adequate for the role. Eventually, Holly falls in love and, as a bonus, necessitates a court scene.

Yes, Boys on the Side has a small helping of courtroom drama, and many other tidy formula tribulations. With the wrong cast, or the wrong attitude, Boys on the Side could have ended up as a big screen version of a too-topical-to-be-human made-for-TV movie. With Goldberg and especially Parker (and Estelle Parsons as a kindly, bewigged psychic reader) the cast is right. The attitude is sentimental, not preachy. In fact, Boys on the Side is almost cloyingly sentimental, like a perfect dessert is almost cloyingly sweet. It's probably too rich for one woman, and should be shared.

Boys On The Side.
Directed by Herbert Ross.
Rated R.
118 minutes.

 
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