Friday, April 12, 2013

Tales of the '70s: Freaks, Geeks, and Slums

Whether by coincidence or fate, two of the titles I decided to review today are late-1990s takes on growing up in the late '70s. One is a snappy indie comedy, the other a painfully honest (and funny) TV series that continues to deserve all belated praise hurled its way.

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) - EXPIRED

For a long time I avoided this movie. A long time. Like, since it was first released, which goes back 15 years now. Why? I remember the positive reviews when it came out, and it still seems well regarded today. But despite that—and the fact that it co-stars my alternate-reality future wife, Marisa Tomei—I just never felt drawn in enough to give it a shot.

Maybe it was the title. For whatever reason, titles are important to me, and the word "slums" has never exactly squeezed my happy gland. (Come to think of it, that may be why I still haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire.) And though I'd loved Paul Mazursky's Down and Out In Beverly Hills (and liked Beverly Hills Cop well enough), as a devout New Yorker at the time I may have simply had my fill of things L.A.

I was wrong. Twenty lashes for Past David. This brash little comedy/drama is that all-too-rare coming-of-age story told from the girl's point of view, and unlike a lot of American films on the subject, it's not afraid to push a few buttons. That's attributable not only to its indie outlier status, but to writer/director Tamara Jenkins, who based much of the film on her own nomadic childhood. This isn't a rose-colored portrait of (cue violins) "one girl's coming of age." There's little sentimentality here—at least when it comes to the kids—even if it's not as comically merciless as 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse. Still, any film that depicts its 14-year-old heroine on a bathroom floor experiencing her first vibrator gets big points in a film industry still notoriously squeamish dealing with young girls' sexuality.

A girl and her hairdryer
The cast is fantastic. As usual, it's nearly impossible to dislike Alan Arkin, incredibly sympathetic as the older single dad who's never managed to get his life together. And Marisa Tomei is a hot mess as his unbalanced niece. I knew nothing about the film's 18-year-old star, Natasha Lyonne (or her later real-world problems), but I was knocked out by her ability to convey her character's need for stability, exasperation with her family, and matter-of-fact curiosity in her developing body and its effect on the opposite sex. Also perfectly cast were David Krumholtz, as her older brother, and Kevin Corrigan, as the sweet pot-dealing neighbor she chooses to share her budding womanhood with. Jessica Walter, Rita Moreno and an especially effective Carl Reiner also make appearances.

The plotline involving Tomei's character sometimes veers too far into melodrama, and Jessica Walter's character seemed to come out of nowhere, but the freshness and particularity of the kids' behavior and experiences—along with the film's unjaded performances and humor—more than make up for these minor lapses.

No matter what decade you grew up in—or whether you're male or female—Slums of Beverly Hills is an entertaining trip back in time. Now excuse me while I go find my own earlier self and slap him silly.

Freaks and Geeks (1999)

Do you like James Franco? Seth Rogen? SCTV's Joe Flaherty? The work of Paul Feig or Judd Apatow? Touching and awkward stories of high school with actual footholds in reality? Busy Philipps? Linda Cardellini? Understated period pieces with eerily appropriate late '70s soundtracks? Jason Segel? Martin Starr? Blue leisure suits? Recognizable human emotion? Gladiators? All or some of the above?

The F & G gang
If so, then you owe it to yourself to overcome any built-in resistance to a show called Freaks and Geeks (again, guilty) and immerse yourself in this cult comedy/drama that was a veritable petri dish for today's top comic talents. You may not think it's about you ("Hey, I wasn't no freak-slash-geek!"), but like the best stories it transcends the particulars of time (1980) and place (Michigan) to paint situations we can all relate to. Not only is it one of the better TV shows you'll see, it offers possibly the most sympathetic portrayal of the high school years—with all their awkwardness, drama, and humor—ever realized.

The sole drawback is that only 18 episodes were made before the series was unjustly pulled from the air—a victim of crappy network marketing and perhaps too much subtlety to gain a large enough audience in that pre-streaming world. But that's also one of the positives, since it means you won't be facing an intimidating number of seasons to catch up on (even if, after only two or three episodes, you'll be wishing there were a whole lot more).

Meanwhile, I did lie about the gladiators—there aren't any. But that blue leisure suit? It would make even Spartacus drop his trident and run.

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