Courtesy Photo
91 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, August 28, 1998
Co-written & directed by Tamara Jenkins

Starring Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, Marissa Tomei, Kevin Corrigan, Carl Reiner, Rita Moreno & Jessica Walter


1970s setting benefits from wide screen format, but visuals aren't vital enough to worry about hunting for letterbox version.

Coming-of-age comedy 'Slums' fails to exploit its best asset

Somewhere inside "Slums of Beverly Hills" is a great coming-of-age comedy struggling to get out.

Its core concept is brazen and cagey, the story of a brash teenage girl whose sudden and generous mammary growth wreaks havoc on her life.

But instead of staying focused on the comedic and social potential of the boob issue -- which, it suddenly occurs, has been ripe for post-feminist parody for quite some time -- "Slums" takes off in a whole different direction after a few embarrassing moments in a department store fitting room.

Her rack is regulated to second billing and the picture unhinges, becoming an almost interesting tale of the girl's oddball family, whose used car salesman dad keeps them in a dumpy, one-bedroom apartment just inside the 90210 for the sake of a prestigious addy and good schools.

Written and directed by feature freshman Tamara Jenkins, it's clear that "Slums" is semi-biographical from the heart that went into creating this film. It takes place very specifically in 1976 (although Jenkins thankfully doesn't play up that fact) and approaches several classic teen dilemmas with a relatively fresh eye.

Its star, Natasha Lyonne ("Everyone Says I Love You"), absolutely carries the movie with a impeccable Brooklyn-transplant accent and attitude. Though obviously in her 20s, she taps her inner teen beautifully, experimenting with her new-found hypnotic power over boys and wearing a wardrobe of cut-offs, knee socks and babydoll sweaters to go with her mess of curly blond hair flopping high on top of her head.

But Lyonne's splendid efforts are undermined by the scattered focus on other characters, who are well-acted but too much of a distraction.

Her father (the joyously irascible Alan Arkin) moves them from apartment to apartment one step ahead of the repo man. Her boozy, pill-popping cousin (Marisa Tomei in a strong and funny comeback) serves as a poor female role model, but the only one Lyonne has. Indie oddball poster-boy Kevin Corrigan ("Buffalo '66," "Kicked in the Head") plays a pot-head neighbor, the only available target for her inexperienced flirtations.

But the fact that he's the only boy around to toy with is a prime example of where "Slums" passes up great comedic (and dramatic) opportunities. The picture takes place in the summer, so we never even see the reactions of Lyonne's friends and classmates to her new knockers -- a rich source of comedy and conflict left untapped.

Another distracting problem: Several wholly unnecessary boob shots using the most obvious body doubles I've ever seen. Tomei goes from a B- to a C-cup and back in 10 seconds.

It's too bad, because "Slums" is incisive and clever when the story stays on the boobs (which, by the way, are incredibly convincing prosthetics), in part because for the first time in movie history, breasts are a source of humor for reasons that don't (always) stem from ogling guys. As two seperate movies, it might have worked.

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