By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Boys on the Side

  • Movie

At least Boys on the Side (Warner Bros., R) acknowledges the Thelma & Louise thing head-on. Early in this girls-on-the-road odyssey starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore as an Odd Trio driving from New York to Pittsburgh to Tucson, Goldberg, playing a lesbian called Jane, rolls her eyebrowless eyes in exasperation as Parker and Barrymore do some light bonding. ”I am not going over a cliff for you two, so just forget it,” she huffs. Jane’s a hard-shelled New York City club musician seat-belted alongside a demure hetero real estate agent (Parker) with, it turns out, AIDS, and a drug dealer’s flaky, pot-smoking, abused girlfriend (Barrymore) with, it turns out, child. The reference to the famous T&L scene is a canny one — it immediately eases any distracting speculation that perhaps director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Don Roos hadn’t noticed the fat debt Boys owes Thelma. But it also points up just how this lush, weepy, topically correct, emotional button pusher — a chick flick for women who sing ”We Are Family” too much — differs in tone and intention from its older sister, and how disappointingly short a way women’s buddy movies have come, baby.

The difference also reflects the cultural conservativism that has set in during the four years that separate Thelma — the kicked-around, grown-up housewife played by Geena Davis who, with the help of Louise, bails on her believably bullying husband — and Holly, the flighty, girlish lollipop played by Barrymore, who, with the help of her girlfriends, konks her unbelievably awful boyfriend on the head and hits the road with blond Melrose Place ringlets and Kewpie lipstick unmussed. Remember the promise held by Callie Khouri’s energizing script way back in Thelma‘s time? Women could drive fast in the hot desert, have liberating sex with a young Brad Pitt (before he was the Sexiest Man Alive), watch the sun rise blood red, and say ”Screw you” to laws and the men who make them. Thelma was going to be a clarion call announcing Hollywood’s Year of the Woman. Men — who, even if they felt threatened, were at least challenged and aroused by the sunburned power of Davis and Susan Sarandon — were gonna have to watch out.

What happened? By last spring, the notion of outlaw women had been reduced to Bad Girls. Showy, strutting, meaty, Oscar-inducing female roles have become so few that one of the showiest this year — a gift-box role for Jessica Lange — occurs in Blue Sky, a film made four years ago. Pocketbook-size chick flicks, even one as good and as mainstreamed as Little Women, have been inherently set apart for women to attend with other women in a segregated festival of Kleenex-crumpling. And the perils of sex with an improper stranger are now shown to lead straight to unplanned pregnancy — and death from the wasting ravages of AIDS.

Of course, because Ross is the same romantic who idealized the company of women in The Turning Point and Steel Magnolias, he couches the depressing message of Boys in the most appealing of embraces. Except when they’re in gloomy Pittsburgh, the light is golden and the American landscape is sweet. Goldberg, for all her character’s tough bluster, is sweet too: Her performance here is contained, modulated, dignified without cushioning the Whoopi edge that makes her work so interesting and uncategorizable. In fact, all three road buddies work for Ross to attractive advantage. Fried Green Tomatoes alumna Parker makes — if I can say this right — a charming AIDS sufferer. Her wan, blurry face glows with bewildered pain, and her anger is ladylike; in her best scene she briefly comes alive sexually (thanks, Thelma) under the ministrations of James Remar (Blink). And Barrymore’s giggly, irresponsible, I-can’t-help-myself persona is put to good use in a role that lets the baby of the trio work to — if I can say this right — her dramatic capacity.

Boys on the Side is a fake. These three amigas would never be together, these three Lifestyle Scenarios would never end up in a lesbian-friendly Southwestern bar. Yet the notion that, as one swinging-out sister says, ”there’s something that goes on between women,” works on the most basic, most manipulative of levels. If you’re a girl and you see this movie, you’ll probably cry. If you’re a boy and you don’t have to go, you probably won’t. I don’t think marketing segregation is what Thelma and Louise died for when their car sailed off that cliff. But what do I know? B-

Boys on the Side

  • Movie
  • R
  • Herbert Ross