SEEMS THAT A few weeks ago, I irritated some readers with a comment about how certain movies were "chick flicks." Though I don't count myself among the world's population of misogynists, surely my sarcastic reference to this colloquial term could have been better handled. And I'll gladly admit that for every "chick flick" released, there are a half-dozen "prick flicks" oozing gooey, unruly quantities of testosterone right into the popcorn buckets of hapless viewers.
With that in mind, I skipped the popcorn stand and quietly made my way into a theater where Boys on the Side was showing. This will be my penance, I decided, noting the almost all-female audience. Choosing my seat, I imagined I was Raskolnikov arriving in snowy Siberia.
Boys on the Side begins in snowy New York City, with nightclub singer Whoopi Goldberg belting out a throaty Janis Joplin tune. At the song's end, Goldberg steps down from the stage to intimidate a gum-chewing woman who was too busy flirting with her boyfriend to listen. Right off the bat, the movie fairly announces it's about women paying attention to other women and leaving men, well, on the side.
Fed up with New York, the grungy Goldberg accepts an offer to share one-half of the driving responsibilities on a trip to California. Her partner: Mary-Louise Parker, a Mary Tyler Moore look-alike whom Goldberg immediately declares "the whitest woman on the face of the planet." The two soon arrive in Pittsburgh, where they discover that Goldberg's friend, played by Drew Barrymore, is being abused by her druggie boyfriend.
If there was ever a scene designed to tap into women's anger against men, this is it. Where Thelma & Louise played its opening revenge scene for shock value, Boys on the Side aims for mirth. As Barrymore ended the scuffle by beating her boyfriend over the head with a bat and then gleefully taunting him, the female audience responded with gales of raucous laughter. If you listened carefully, you could hear the faint shifting sound of the few males in the audience protectively crossing their legs.
Boys on the Side isn't shy about its status as a women's movie, and director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Don Roos don't hesitate to push all the buttons they can. There are the expected scenes of the three women bouncing along to music in the car, but the film also deals with serious subjects like lesbianism, terminal illness and fatherless pregnancy. The movie comes complete with its very own female version of the Madonna-whore complex, where the best men are dead and the rest are buffoons. (Parker has occasional flashbacks to her perfect dead brother; viewers may recall a similar scenario in Fried Green Tomatoes.)
Fortunately, the script is too smart to let these sorts of tactics continue for the duration. When the three women arrive in Tucson, the movie enters a whole new phase.
One warning: If you enter Boys on the Side expecting to see Tucson as it really is, get ready to laugh. This is the Hollywood version, where everybody wears fashionable Southwestern clothing and the cultures are fully integrated. Everybody seems to live in these huge, adobe foothills-type houses, and when they're not pruning cacti by the porch they're living it up at la cantina or enjoying big, exotic street fairs. To be sure, this idealized version of the Old Pueblo is a real gas.
(It's worth mentioning that the movie features performances by the Indigo Girls. Extra points for those of you who can spot the offices of the Tucson Weekly.)
In any case, it's during the latter half of Boys on the Side that the movie really takes off. Each character becomes fully, distinctly developed, and the dialogue is smart and sparing, even when the women are discussing synonyms for "vagina." Director Ross gives the movie just the right balance of drama and humor to keep it from drowning in its sentimental trappings, which, by film's end, earn a good deal of effectiveness.
The casting is ideal. Goldberg gets most of the good comic lines, but she also makes a fine sympathetic character, doing wonderful things with the eyebrows she doesn't have. It's good to have her back. Parker plays her usual vulnerable-on-the-outside, strong-on-the-inside role, fleshing out a full range of emotions with seemingly little effort. And Barrymore is just right for her dippy part. She can scarcely act, but her sexy, rather airheaded role allows her to be herself and get away with it. Besides, she's got a great smile and looks fetching in Lolita glasses.
Boys on the Side pulls out all the stops with its ending, which culminates with Goldberg singing Parker a tear-tugging rendition of Roy Orbison's "You Got It." But there's a magic to the way the movie pulls together a sense of family, friendship and love--for once, the concoction has been mixed just right. I may have walked in a chick-flick prick, but I emerged a new man.
Boys on the Side is playing at Century Gateway (792-9000) and Century Park (6200750) cinemas.
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