Published August 1, 1998
The Slums of Beverly Hills, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins is another meditation on family, this time the highly dysfunctional, motherless Abramowitz family in Southern California in 1976. The patriarch, Murray Abramowitz (Alan Arkin) is a sometime car salesman but mainly unemployed drifter who moves his family around from one cheap apartment or motel to the next, mainly in the dead of night in order to skip out on the rent. The kids want desperately to be normal and complain about being “nomads.” Dad tries to jolly them along by taking them to Sizzler steak houses.
To make matters worse for Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), his teenage daughter, she has recently “developed” and finds herself in need of a brassiere. “I’m like deformed,” she wails. The saleswoman who measures her confides: “You have been blessed; breasts are wonderful. You’ll see.” But they’re not very wonderful at the moment, and her two brothers, the older Ben (David Krumholtz) and the younger Ricky (Eli Marienthal) tease her about them. Her father, shocked by a halter top tells her, absurdly, to wear her bra with it. Ben has to break it to him: “The trouble is, Dad: Viv is stacked.”
The family’s latest move is to Beverly Hills where, Murray says, he is taking the kids because of the good schools. “Furniture is temporary; education is permanent,” he tells them. They move into a seedy place called Casa Bella that Viv calls a “dingbat” residence — ”cheap apartments with fancy names that promise the good life but never deliver.” Their neighbor there is Elliott Aaronson (Kevin Corrigan). He wears a Charles Manson t-shirt (which, like his Cadillac, he calls “a collector’s item” ) and has dropped out of high school. “It’s an option,” he explains to Viv, with whom he is naturally taken. “I wanted to join the work force.”
“What do you do?”
“I sell pot.” Soon he is Viv’s boyfriend.
Murray may be a loser, but there is money in the family and Murray obviously has a long history of putting the squeeze on his rich brother Mickey (Carl Reiner). When Mickey’s messed-up, junkie daughter, Rita (Marissa Tomei), escapes from detox and seeks out her Uncle Murray on the grounds that the two of them are “the family f***-ups,” Murray sees an opportunity to get more money out of Mickey. He persuades her to take a nursing course and then persuades Mickey that she stands a better chance of sticking to the straight and narrow if she lives with his family, as a companion to Viv. Of course, they would need a “monthly” from him to defray expenses. Mickey coughs up and they all move across the street to much fancier accommodations. For the first time in their lives, they begin to feel rich.
Not quite unexpectedly lots goes wrong, rather quickly, with this arrangement, and the lot of them, Rita now included, are confirmed in their reputation as f***-ups. “The whole family is sick,” moans Viv, the spokesman for normality. “I hate us. We’re freaks.” But when rich Uncle Mickey humiliates his brother in front of his children, the children, though a fairly unprepossessing lot up until then and not so sweet and charming as I think Ms Jenkins wants to present them as being, rally round the old man and begin to find something to be said for family ties. Their loyalty to their father is touching, and the family really is a family instead of being confused with a gang of friends. And a lot of the jokes are funny. There are worse ways of spending an evening.