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Boys on the Side

Posted by martinteller on March 9, 2014

[WARNING: this review contains a mild, non-specific spoiler] Jane (Whoopi Goldberg) is a club singer looking to move from NY to LA, hoping to revitalize her sagging career with a change of scene.  In the classified ads, she finds someone to share the driving: Robin (Mary-Louise Parker), a real estate agent thinking that San Diego will be a better market for her talents.  In Pittsburgh, they stop to visit Jane’s friend Holly (Drew Barrymore), who they find being abused by her drug-dealing boyfriend Nick (Billy Wirth).  A violent altercation ensues, and they split the scene, taking Holly — and a wad of Nick’s cash — with them.  Holly, not the brightest bulb on the tree, decides to go back, but the situation changes when the news comes out that Nick is dead.  Further developments bring the trio to rest in Tucson, where the bonds of their friendships will be both strengthened and tested.

This is the kind of movie that consistently flies under my radar, too easily dismissed (perhaps by shoddy marketing) as forgettable Hollywood fluff.  In this case, it’s a film that with a passing glance appears to be cynically marketed to a female audience, giving them a lot of recycled “girl power” Thelma and Louise-ripoff lady bonding.  But my girlfriend recommended it, and I’m glad she did.  While the first act occasionally trips over a few clichés, it settles into a piece that is honest, relatable and even insightful about friendship, lesbianism, feminism and coping with AIDS.  Maybe the dialogue is a little hacky at times — and “What’s it like to have sex without a dick?” is one of the most awkward setups for a retort I’ve ever heard — but it’s not preachy, it’s not soapboxy, and it’s not trite.  And it even takes a sly jab at the Thelma and Louise comparison.

It is undeniably an estrogen-heavy picture (the soundtrack is entirely sung by women, including a cameo appearance by the Indigo Girls), but one can enjoy the supportive relationships with or without a dick.  Goldberg gets a bad rap… perhaps her choice in roles isn’t always the best, but she can act when she wants to (and speaking as a fan of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Guinan is one of my favorite characters).  The first 20 minutes or so seems to be painting her into a particular box — and doing the audience a disservice by making it look like we’re in for an “oil and water” road trip flick — but the role takes on depth and nuance, and Jane stands as a very likable figure.  Parker is an actress I’ve never given much thought to (I also constantly get her mixed up with Mary Stuart Masterson) but I really liked her as well… again, despite the poor setup for her character in the first act.  Barrymore’s character is the thinnest, and as the most pathetic of the three, she’s the one you kind of wish would go away sometimes, but I actually thought Barrymore did a good job of making Holly somewhat endearing.  There’s also a charmingly earnest supporting role for Matthew McConaughey, and a nice appearance by Anita Gillette as well.  James Remar, as one of the love interests, fails to leave much of an impression, though.

The film’s penultimate scene — a somber Whoopi-sung rendition of The Traveling Wilburys’ “You Got It” — is exceptionally touching and understated.  I’m a sucker for scenes of people singing at home anyway, and this one is really quite beautifully rendered and bittersweet.  However, in the film’s biggest misstep, it’s followed by an unnecessary and inappropriate montage of previous scenes.  Good intentions, perhaps (it’s not nearly as corny as it could have been) but it really undercuts the impact of the preceding moments.  But other than that and the somewhat rocky first 20-ish minutes, I have only minor criticisms.  It’s a fine portrait of friendship and the trials that test it… and it’s more subtle and reserved than one would expect.  Rating: Very Good (81)


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