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A BLEAK RIDE

RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS ** 1/2

STARRING: Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, James Woods

DIRECTOR: Penny Marshall

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for sexual situations, adult themes, drug use and strong language

THE LOWDOWN: Pregnant and wed at 15, a Connecticut girl comes of age during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

You know how the TV commercials make this look like a screwball comedy sprinkled with a little drama?

Flip that around: "Riding in Cars With Boys" is actually a very long and depressing road trip of a movie sprinkled with a little comedy - good comedy, to be sure, but nowhere near enough to make you leave the theater grinning.

This doesn't mean the movie isn't good; it is. It does mean you'll want to bring extra tissues with you. And extra patience.

Based on Beverly Donofrio's 1990 memoir, the story centers around 15-year-old Beverly (Drew Barrymore), a soft-hearted teen whose ambition to go to college and become a writer is sidetracked when she becomes pregnant by her stoner-with-a-heart-of-gold boyfriend, Ray (Steve Zahn).

They get married (with a glum reception that is as painful for the audience to watch as it is for Beverly to sit through) and despite their near-slum housing and lifestyle, they spend at least a few years genuinely happy with each other and their little boy, Jason.

So far, so good. Barrymore's flair for physical comedy is used to full advantage and she also shows hints of serious dramatic chops, conveying nuanced emotions with the slightest shift of her round, earnest face. She's worked hard on this, and it shows.

But as the '60s give way to the '70s, Beverly turns to night school, Ray turns to heroin, and the film turns into something of a mess.

For one thing, the structure gets confusing at times. It is set in the present, as the now-mature Beverly and her college-age son embark on a crucial road trip, but it keeps flashing back to track Beverly's life from teenhood on.

It's a surprising display of heavy-handedness from Penny Marshall, who you might expect to show the troubled current state of Bev and Jason's relationship or how it got there - but not both.

Another problem: Barrymore, at 26, easily nails Beverly's character from age 15 to her early 20s, but she is unconvincing as a world-weary fortysomething. It also must be said that this is a real heart-ripper of a movie. Particularly unbearable is the heartbreaking scene in which Zahn (whose soft-hearted slacker upstages Barrymore in many scenes) says goodbye to his young son after Bev has kicked him out. The next scene was a benign one, but too many people in the preview audience were crying to take much notice.

What to do with a movie like this, one that is alternately warm, lovely and true, and then heavy and grim beyond belief? A movie with a terrific supporting cast that nonetheless can't seem to rise above a series of great moments among a so-so script?

See it with these caveats, I suppose: Single parents beware - this will hit you in places you didn't even know you had places. Kids of divorce, skip this one - you'll flash back to stuff you've likely spent your whole life trying to forget. And, don't expect too much from the ending: It's a relatively happy one, but not overly so.

e-mail: lgithens@buffnews.com

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