'Slums' is charming despite premise

August 28, 1998|By Calvin Wilson | Calvin Wilson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Vivian has a big problem -- or more accurately, two big `D problems.

They're between her neck and her waist, and they're driving her crazy. It's 1976, she's a teen-ager, and her breasts are taking over her life.

Or, at least, she thinks they are. The daughter of an unsuccessful businessman who keeps moving the family from place to place, Vivian has enough to worry about without also having to deal with lustful males.

That "Slums of Beverly Hills" spins something charming and original from this dubious premise is due not only to the lightly comic touch of writer/director Tamara Jenkins but also to the film's quirkily charismatic star, Natasha Lyonne.

As the scrappy but vulnerable Vivian, Lyonne ("Everyone Says I Love You") delivers a performance of loopy authority.

Her Vivian is a reluctant nomad, a girl who constantly encounters new surroundings only to leave them.

When her father, Murray (Alan Arkin), steers Vivian and her two brothers into the latest in a series of rundown apartments -- this one on the outskirts of Beverly Hills -- she assumes it will be just another stop.

But the move will permanently affect her attitude.

"Slums of Beverly Hills" is a coming-of-age story, but without the self-conscious angst that often infects that genre. Although Vivian's situation is sometimes painful, the character isn't self-pitying or powerless. She's just a kid who feels overwhelmed by the world. It's called adolescence.

In a summer of gross-out comedy, "Slums" is an anomaly. It's funny without being insulting, sensitive without being sappy, insightful without being earnest.

Jenkins doesn't push for laughs. Rather, she creates an atmosphere in which they emerge organically and surprisingly. Characters, not shocks, come first.

It doesn't hurt that Jenkins has assembled a splendid cast. Arkin convinces us that Murray deserves his children's love without neglecting his childlike irresponsibility.

As a laid-back neighbor, Kevin Corrigan ("Buffalo 66" and "Henry Fool") shows off his trademark blend of affability and eccentricity. And as Vivian's troubled cousin Rita, who moves in with the family in an attempt to straighten herself out, Marisa Tomei is as incandescent as usual.

In this company, it's no small achievement that Lyonne commands attention. Claire Danes, Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman will have to make room for yet another impressive young actress.

'Slums of Beverly Hills'

Starring Natasha Lyonne and Alan Arkin

Directed by Tamara Jenkins

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated R (language and adult situations)

Running time: 91 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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