By Susan Ellis
SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: As far as coming-of-age comedies go, Slums of Beverly Hills holds its own in mining the rich grounds of all the yuckiness and mysterious goings-on of down there. But Slums also has a bittersweetness lingering in there somewhere; it has to do with pinpointing that time in a kids (or adults) life when he or she realizes certain truths about their life and still have the pure nobility to fight against it anyway. In some ways, Slums harks back to the mid-Eighties John Hughes films only a more cynical John Hughes film, where the heroine has seen a thing or two.
In this case, the hardened Molly Ringwald is one Vivian Abramowitz, played by the appealing Natasha Lyonne (Everyone Says I Love You). The year is 1976, and Vivian is 15 and every parents worst fear. Its not that Vivian doesnt have a good head on her shoulders. In fact, shes wise beyond her years. Trouble is, her chest is beyond her years, too shes a veritable boob prodigy weighing in at cup-size C.
Now any girl would be self-conscious about such a sudden growth spurt. For Vivian, the matter is made worse by the cramped and dingy quarters she shares with her brothers (one younger and one older). Not to mention that her father, Murray (Alan Arkin), refers to her as stacked. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that her father, divorced and older than the usual dad, keeps moving them around at the dead of night to avoid paying the rent, all the while preaching about the trappings of living within the 90210 zip code no matter how dumpy the place is.
What Vivian needs is some female influence. What she gets is Rita (Marisa Tomei). Rita is a 29-year-old rehab escapee who wields a vibrator and has to borrow her young cousins urine for her first day in nursing school, though nursing school is more or less just a front so that Rita and Murray can get money out of Murrays better-off brother (and Ritas father).
Meanwhile, Vivian has hooked up with Eliot (Kevin Corrigan), her neighbor who is a Charles Manson expert and who is given the responsibility of being Vivians practice guy. She lets him feel her up and so on to see what its like, but beyond that, she tells him their relationship is just a building thing.
Slums of Beverly Hills is the first full-length feature for writer/director Tamara Jenkins, who dipped into her own experiences as a child of divorce growing up poor in Beverly Hills in the Seventies. The humor comes from the constant indignities Vivian has to face, in which the family bond is stressed to a point of creepy closeness. Her father takes her to get her first bra and then makes her wear said bra with a halter top. At the same time, her older brother has no problem pointing out Vivians attributes, sometimes while wearing nothing but briefs. At times the situation breaks out into slapsticky zaniness with accompanying wacky music. And even as the humor falls predictably beneath the belt, it works within the confines of Lyonnes sympathetic performance and the efforts of a strong supporting cast.
It works to such a degree that youre left wondering whatever became of Vivian. Now, 22 years later, is she dealing with her own hyper-blossoming daughter?
Given director John Dahls past work, most notably the wickedly cool The Last Seduction, his latest effort, Rounders, feels conspicuously square. The snappy lingo is there as well as a handful of shady characters, but it doesnt matter. Rounders is blindingly bright, where The Last Seduction was appropriately dark so as to put its seaminess in its proper place. Part of this may lie in the casting of Matt Damon in the lead. With his golden hair cut just so, his preppy clothes, and his class-president smile, he looks as squeaky clean as an altar boy and not like someone who rubs elbows with the sorts whose livelihoods mean they sleep through the daylight hours.
That said, Rounders isnt half bad.
Damon plays Mike, a guy with a hard-knocks childhood whose talent at poker earns him his tuition to law school. But one of those games, in a seedy, hidden-away establishment, leaves him minus $30,000, so he calls it quits to live a straight-up life with a real job and his perfectly legit girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol).
Nine months later, Mike gets drawn back in when his old buddy Worm (Edward Norton) comes calling. Worm is a friend from way back, a person for whom despite a character that earns him the nickname Mike has fierce loyalty. The loyalty goes beyond giving Worm a ride back into the city from prison. When Worm needs some start-up funds, Mike gives it to him, and when he needs Mikes help in cleaning out a few rich suckers in a card game, Mike gives that, too. Mike gives Worm everything, while Worm gives Mike nothing but trouble.
The trouble is a debt of 25 grand that Worm owes to Teddy KGB (a cartoonish John Malkovich), a Russian card shark with little patience and a taste for Oreo cookies. To earn the money, Mike and Worm go on a two-day card-playing spree. Mike doesnt want any problems, preferring to play without cheating. Worm, on the other hand, cant resist the quick kill of the rounder or hustler.
The result of Mike and Worms mad dash for cash nets them two busted-up faces and empty pockets, so Mike makes an all-or-nothing attempt at saving his ass by facing the man who took away his $30,000 with a sweep of his arm Teddy KGB.
Rounders is basically a con-man film that glorifies the skill of making a quick buck. The choice of poker as the grift takes the viewer past doors with those small, sliding windows and into smoky rooms with mesh cages. Its a world, even when its above-board, thats unfamiliar to nine-to-fivers. While Rounders never really nails the lure of poker, it is successful in capturing the tension that causes a nervous sweat its in the reading of another mans tics, in the hesitation of throwing in more chips, and in the slow, card-bending revelation of a hand.
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