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[whitespace] Slums of Beverly Hills Have Blower, Will Travel: Natasha Lyonne packs some hair-drying heat in 'Slums of Beverly Hills.'

There's more than just slums in Tamara Jenkins' Beverly Hills'

By Richard von Busack

THE EBULLIENT debut film by Tamara Jenkins, Slums of Beverly Hills, admits, first off, that there is such a thing as a slum in Beverly Hills. Too true. Just drive the dismal, sooty corridor of Olympic Boulevard. You'll see sad people paying jumbo bucks for a Beverly Hills address, hoping to be delivered from both the fury and the neglect of the L.A.P.D. The film's heroine, however, isn't a wistful soul pining in these high-rent cheese boxes. This light, tangy comedy is set in what's now regarded perversely as happier times: the 1970s. Without fussiness, Jenkins has recreated the era: foot-long vibrators and yard-long bongs; H.R. Pufnstuf on TV, watched by kids in their underwear eating cold cereal. Jenkins reminds us that the decade was a rare spot in history. Outside of formal occasions and discos, the richest person dressed not too differently from the poorest person. It was a time of great social mobility; certainly this was the most charming aspect of the odd period.

But the characters in Slums of Beverly Hills are too caught up in their own obsessions to notice history going by. The film follows a dysfunctional family's summer of 1976. The freckled, big-eyed Natasha Lyonne stars as Viv, an adolescent girl who has just grown breasts and hates them. Her father, Murray, is played by Alan Arkin, in his first worthwhile role in years. This jovial hustler and secondhand car spiv has a new scheme. Viv's half-crazy cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) has just escaped from the detox clinic and run to them for shelter with nothing but the bathrobe on her back. Murray decides to put Rita up in exchange for regular checks from Rita's father, his obnoxious, prosperous brother, Mickey (Carl Reiner). Meanwhile, Viv starts seeing Eliot (Kevin Corrigan, the "ugly guy" from Walking and Talking). He's Viv's--well, you couldn't call him "boyfriend." One of the fun things about the film is its complete lack of mushiness about adolescent sexuality. When desire strikes Viv for the first time, it's as graceful as if she had been bopped by a baseball bat. "It's a building thing," Viv tells Eliot more than once; proximity, not sympathy, brought them together.

Slums of Beverly Hills has a hilarious first-orgasm scene, in which Viv, solo, lies flat on the bathroom carpet, staring up at the orange coil of the heater in the ceiling. The sequence proves that Jenkins is already a sly, feral director. Films like this, on the topic of "The Summer I Became a Woman," don't often have this kind of humor, grunge or objectivity. Jenkins studies the cheap dingbat apartments affectionately. She captures not just the grime of their walls but also the bits of mica sandblasted into them by their builders--to make them sparkle.

The Slums of Beverly Hills (R; 91 min.), directed and written by Tamara Jenkins, photographed by Tom Richmond and starring Marisa Tomei, Natasha Lyonne and Alan Arkin.

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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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