Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, Adam Garcia, Lorraine Bracco, James Woods
Director:  Penny Marshall
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  131 Minutes
Release Date:  March 19, 2002

“Sometimes I don’t know if I really love him, or I have to love him.  And since I don’t know, it scares me to death…what’s wrong with me?”

“I think that sometimes, we love people so much we have to become numb to it.  Because if we actually felt how much we really loved them, it would kill us.

Take my word for it, Bev…you really do love him.”

Film ****

Some movie scenes are so defining, they almost defy description.  Picture a tall, handsome young man on a pay phone in a diner.  An attractive young woman in a car honks to hurry him up.  “You’re girlfriend’s kind of fond of that horn,” a stranger remarks.  “She’s not my girlfriend,” he replies sullenly.  “She’s my mom.”  It’s a scene that occurs early on, but thankfully leaves us with the impression of light at the end of the tunnel just as we start out on a long journey with these characters.

Penny Marshall’s latest film Riding in Cars With Boys is a beautiful, funny, tragic cross section of life.  It’s based on the book by Beverly Donofrio, and it’s the true story of her lifelong obsession with boys, and how one boy actually did forever change her life for better AND for worse.

It features Drew Barrymore in an astonishing, honest performance that not only is the best work of her career, but what should have garnered an Oscar nomination.  She plays Bev from age 15 to age 36…a long journey, but not only one of time…one of triumphs and failures, of love and hate, of transgression and forgiveness.  It’s also a journey of humor and sorrow, and one I know I won’t ever forget.

Bev is smart, funny, personable…she has big dreams, and big talent, and a seemingly wonderful future ahead of her.  But the future she planned for herself is not the one fate deals her.  She imagined romance and success, but never pictured a world of motherhood and being married to a man who tells her “nobody will ever love you like me”, and who doesn’t understand that’s not exactly what she wants to hear.

Pregnant at 15 to the sadness of her mom and dad (Bracco and Woods), she marries that boy, Ray (Zahn).  Despite the turn of events, she’s still determined to keep her ship on course.

But motherhood takes its toll, and it doesn’t help that Ray, despite being sweet, is hopelessly ineffectual as a husband and father.  He may have love, but he doesn’t have strength…what can Bev possibly do with a man who’s honest enough to admit that he’ll never be able to kick the heroin habit he’s acquired?

Like all mothers, Bev is forced to make choices over and over again.  Some are good, some not so good.  She has understandable moments of self pity, and part of her journey is about learning to take responsibility for the way her life turned out.  This is sadly complicated by her occasional resentment toward her son…a feeling that gets reciprocated over the years.  After all, in Jason’s world, he has to stop being a kid much too early.  In their relationship, sometimes he almost has to become the parent.

I don’t want to make the movie sound too heavy handed…though it gets the drama of life just right, it also captures the humor of it as well.  Even more succinctly, it express that sometimes humor and tragedy goes hand in hand.  A simple scene can speak volumes, like when Bev puts on a funny record and dances for her little boy while his father goes through screaming withdrawal pains in another room.  It’s funny and touching, and even magical in a strange way, even though you never stop thinking about how Bev never imagined that her life would one day be like this.

Again, I can’t stress enough the absolute brilliance and courage of Drew Barrymore’s performance.  She’s always been a terrific actress, but she’s never had a chance to shine the way she does in this movie.  She makes the most of it…one can feel the pains she must have had pouring her entire being into everything Bev was.  It’s a performance you’ll never forget once you’ve seen it.

Other mentions should go to Steve Zahn, who captures a pitiful character without reservation or judgment and the amazing Brittany Murphy, who plays Bev’s best friend Fay with equal amounts of strength and fear.  James Woods is, of course, terrific as always, taking a smaller role and making it one of the film’s pivotal points.

But credit also Penny Marshall, who’s made a number of films ranging from good to extremely good…she has now made one that can be called great.  Riding in Cars With Boys is a beautiful and loving testament to life and all of its craziness, unfairness and unpredictability…all of its ups and downs…and coming out on the other side realizing we wouldn’t have traded a moment of it.

Video ***1/2

I was actually so involved in the movie the first time, I completely forgot to pay attention to how the DVD looked!  Thankfully, commentary tracks give us critics a second chance sometimes.  This is a quality anamorphic offering from Columbia Tri Star with no flaws…it may pale slightly in comparison to some of their other works simply because the movie is modestly shot without undue attention to colors and physical detail.  The choice was right, because this is such a movie about the people and not the places or the things.  Coloring is still quite good throughout, and the print is remarkably clean, too, with no interference from grain or other elements of compression.  A worthy transfer that suits the subject matter very tastefully.

Audio ***

Being a dialogue oriented movie, this 5.1 track won’t rattle your system…it doesn’t use the .1 channel very much and the rear stage only sparingly for ambient effects…but the dialogue and music both come through with extreme clarity and strong presentation across the front stage.  Dynamic range is minimal but effective, as most of the loudness comes from emotional intensity.  All in all, a very serviceable audio track.

Features ***1/2

I actually have to start with the trailer, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen for ANY movie.  I hope marketing people from studios everywhere get a look at it!  There are also trailers for Charlie’s Angels and A League of Their Own. 

The real treat is Drew Barrymore’s commentary track…though she admits to being an old “Betamax and cassette” person, she finds DVD to her liking, and expresses excitement about her first commentary.  She speaks comfortably and with humor…she’s not afraid to laugh at her memories, nor is she afraid to talk about personal aspects of her performance such as thinking about her relationship with her own mother.  It’s a joyful listen.

There are also a 20 minute HBO making-of special and four featurettes covering Drew’s trailer and how she prepares for her scenes, the cars in the movie, the recreation of Bev and Ray’s house, and even a short piece about the real life Bev and Jason…a nice touch.  Rounding out are some filmographies for the leads.


Riding in Cars with Boys is a beautiful, truthful look at life and motherhood, and breaking apart and reconciling.  It speaks humorous, touching volumes through Penny Marshall’s insightful direction and Drew Barrymore’s wonderful, unforgettable performance.