The Slums of Beverly Hills
directed by Tamara Jenkins
20th Century Fox, 1998

Murray Abromowitz is the patriarch of one of the world's most offbeat nomad clans.

He and daughter Vivian and sons Rickey and Ben spend much of their time fleeing one cheap Beverly Hills apartment for another cheap Beverly Hills apartment, usually the day after rent day. Complicating the matter is the fact that daughter Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) is quickly coming of age, while son Ben (David Krumholz) seems intent on never growing up. And Murray's lack of steady income doesn't make things any easier.

The result would not seem, at first glance, to be a hilarious and insightful comedy drama, but it is. The Slums of Beverly Hills is as quirky as its title, in part thanks to the king of quirks, Alan Arkin, who plays Murray.

Arkin, who only last year survived four days in captivity as the kidnapped U.S. ambassador to Brazil, is back in a role closer to the one that brought him screen fame, Yossarian in Catch-22.

Murray is not what you would call one of life's great successes. A former restaurateur, he now makes a living selling cars and sponging off his brother Mickey. He has two goals in life: to keep what's left of his family together and not to get run out of Beverly Hills, where his kids can get a good education.

His whole scheme seems on the verge of falling apart, however, when opportunity, in the form of his niece, knocks on his door. Rita Abromowitz, just out of detox and going nowhere fast, is the bane of Mickey's existence. So Murray and Mickey cut a deal: Mickey will keep Murray's family afloat financially if Murray can keep Rita (Marisa Tomei) on the straight and narrow path.

But plot is only one element of Slums of Beverly Hills. Just as important is the film's soundtrack, which kind of harrumphs merrily along as the Abromowitzes scurry along from apartment to apartment, and the characters, all of whom are just far enough out of touch with reality to be in touch with one another.

Even the secondaries have their moments: Ever-present neighbor Eliot Aaronsen divides his time between "devirginizing minors" and lecturing Vivian on Charles Manson; and big brother Ben, whose goal in life is to follow in Marlon Brando's footsteps, does a terrific version of Luck Be a Lady to Me, in his underwear no less. But both pale before the film's final showdown, a non-fatal forking in an airport restaurant.

Yet for all its quirkiness, Slums of Beverly Hills has some genuinely interesting things to say about families, especially non-nuclear families who march -- or flee -- to the beat of different drummers. It gets cloying at times, but always pulls itself back from the edge.

Henry David Thoreau once said he'd "traveled extensively in Concord." The Abromowitzes could say the same about the slums of Beverly Hills. Both brought back lessons they felt compelled to share. Murray's are funnier.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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