RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS Director Penny Marshall, who's never met an interesting storyline she couldn't fumble (A League of Their Own excepted), applies her ham-fisted techniques to this adaptation of Beverly Donofrio's autobiography about how she escaped from her miserable lot in life by going on to, well, write her autobiography. Drew Barrymore, who ages from 15 to 35 over the course of the film, stars as Beverly, who becomes pregnant at 15 and finds her future instantly derailed. Forced to give up on her plans to attend college, she instead drops out of school, marries the simpleton (Steve Zahn) who knocked her up, and raises her son to the best of her abilities. It's not that this is a bad movie; it just never comes close to fulfilling its promise as either an inspirational human tale or a three-hanky weepie. Since most of the actors are appropriately cast -- Brittany Murphy is especially effective as Bev's best friend -- the fault rests mainly with Marshall and scripter Morgan Upton Ward, neither of whom care to offer more than a surface glimpse at the horrors that Bev had to endure most of her life (it doesn't help that the film can't stay serious for more than two minutes at a time, with dramatic scenes eventually taking a turn for the quirky or cute). In the later scenes, 28-year-old Adam Garcia is cast as 26-year-old Barrymore's son, perhaps the most egregious example of age-related miscasting since 51-year-old Ava Gardner played 59-year-old Lorne Greene's daughter in Earthquake.
BANDITS Director Barry Levinson's latest tries hard to be a quirky comedy (God, does it try), but the funniest moment in this criminally overlong picture turns out to be a purely unintentional one. Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett), a bored housewife who has hooked up with a pair of bank robbers known as "The Sleepover Bandits," is stunned when she hears one of the crooks (Bruce Willis) mouth the words of the chorus from Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." "You know that song!" she bleats, as if that omniscient smash single were some obscure Gregorian chant and they were the only two people in the world familiar with it. Grab your chuckles where you can, because Bandits is such a complete mess, even the prospect of seeing Willis and Billy Bob Thornton mix it up fails to stir anything in the audience besides contempt. Like a squeaky axle that won't quiet down over the course of a 500-mile road trip, this grates on the nerves almost from the start, when we realize that Thornton's hypochondriac character is going to spend the entire 125-minute running time whining about his various ailments. Blanchett fares no better as the bargain basement screwball heroine in love with both men, and, for that matter, neither does Jane Fonda's son Troy Garity as the gang's thick-witted driver. Amazingly, even though he's cast opposite Thornton, Blanchett and a Fonda heir, it's Willis who comes out on top: Playing it closer to the vest, he at least provides a respite from all the mannered acting smothering the rest of the picture. 1/2
FROM HELL Known for their contemporary urban dramas Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, The Hughes Brothers (aka Allen and Albert Hughes) have returned with a thriller that's set in 1888 London and focuses on Jack the Ripper. It's admirable when any artist is able to break the shackles of preconceived notions, but for those still requiring some sort of connective tissue, it's fairly obvious that From Hell is no different from its predecessors in that they all deal with the poverty, violence and drugs that are readily found on the mean city streets. In fact, what makes this more than just a slasher flick with a pedigree is its insistence on presenting its sordid tale at ground level, exploring the social chasm that existed between the upper and lower classes as much as recreating the killer's grisly handiwork. This may not possess the macabre sense of showmanship that made Sleepy Hollow such a kinky kick (both films, incidentally, star Johnny Depp as a detective investigating bizarre murders), but on its own terms, it's an effective thriller that's densely plotted and well-paced. And as Depp's character becomes more immersed in his investigation, we become more immersed in the period world that the Hughes and their crew have created. Between Martin Childs' sets, Kym Barrett's costumes, and Peter Deming's mood-setting cinematography, this exudes authenticity right down to the last cobblestone. Well, OK: The Marilyn Manson song that plays over the closing credits may not exactly conjure images of 1888 London, but that's a small concession I'm willing to make.