Beverly D'Onofrio has lived a life that could raise the hackles of any pro-choice activist. By all reports (especially her own), she survived via personal strength and determination. But in watching the film version of her struggle -- adapted from D'Onofrio's memoirs, with Drew Barrymore in the lead role -- it's hard to warm to her. While she may be tough, she isn't particularly likable or clever.
The heart of D'Onofrio's story lies in her small-town upbringing in 1960s Connecticut as the daughter of a by-the-book Catholic police officer (James Woods, at slow speed). Teen-aged angst leads to an unwanted pregnancy, which leads to a shotgun wedding and -- in 1968, at the age of 15 -- the birth of a son, Jason. Jason's father (Steve Zahn, in his now-patented goofball mode) comes from modest origins and proceeds downhill, eventually choosing a career in heroin use over fatherhood.
Beverly survives. We see the story in flashbacks, after she's written her memoir and sets out to overcome one last obstacle, accompanied by a grown, angry Jason (Andy Garcia), before the book is published.
Despite the giggly vignettes selected for use in the movie's cutesy trailer, "Riding in Cars With Boys" is more melodrama than comedy. That's largely because Beverly is selfish, given to assigning blame, and more than a bit of a princess: She keeps waiting for someone else to run her life as she thinks it should be run.
A little of that goes a long way. Over the course of a film that seems to far exceed its two-hour running time, Beverly's whiny plight gets downright annoying. Barrymore attempts to play the character at ages 15, 22 and 35; somehow, she always seems to be 12. Neither she nor director Penny Marshall can decide on a consistent tone.
The root of D'Onofrio's despair arises from her conviction that she's smarter than anyone else in her vicinity -- that she's being unfairly punished by old-fashioned mores and small-minded companions. Yet Morgan Upton Ward's screenplay conceals the best part of D'Onofrio's life: the years in which she rehabilitated her surroundings and found a literary voice.
Instead of those years, we get Beverly the bad mother, the complainer, the sufferer. Director Marshall has crafted some upbeat films with universal appeal, notably "Awakenings," "Big" and "A League of Their Own." We can only hope "Riding in Cars With Boys" doesn't reveal a hidden yet forceful itch to grumble.
As for Barrymore, she's more of a personality than an actor. She makes this film, like her others, into a personal vehicle. After posing as a temptress ("Poison Ivy"), a rebel ("Mad Love"), a Cinderella ("Ever After") and an avenger ("Charlie's Angels"), she must have felt it was time to play a bad mother.
She could have picked a better story for the occasion; this one's so unsympathetic it's ordinary.