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ISSUES AND TISSUES

The pioneer trail blazed by Thelma & Louise several winters back is developing into a superhighway. Boys on the Side is Hollywood's latest plunge into female bonding, and it confronts every meaningful women's issue you can think of with such single-minded fervor that you start to wonder if the whole thing isn't a little too meaningful.

Just for starters, consider the heavy baggage the characters have to carry through this minor tragicomedy. Whoopi Goldberg's Jane is not only a struggling musician who's grown cynical from eking out a living in ratholes and dumps, she's also a lesbian. And, as anyone can see, she's black. Mary-Louise Parker's Robin is prim, uptight and repressed--"the whitest woman on the face of the earth," by Jane's estimate--and she has AIDS. As for Drew Barrymore's Holly, a flighty, free-spirited flirt, her nasty, drug-dealing boyfriend likes to beat her up. So she smashes him with a baseball bat. There's more: Holly's pregnant.

In other words, here's a trio so ethnically, temperamentally and sexually diverse that they just have to throw in together, hit the road in a red van and reinvent themselves along the way.

Don't let this get around, but all this simmering social mayhem was conjured up by one man, screenwriter Don Roos, and directed by another man, Herbert Ross. In terms of political correctness, this is completely wrong, of course. But a glance at the Roos/Ross team reveals that each has acceptable "women's movie" credentials. Roos wrote Love Field and Single White Female; in his long career, Ross directed The Turning Point and Steel Magnolias and worked with Barbra Streisand several times.

Talk about letting out all the topical stops. If there's anything you don't already know about traditional-versus-contemporary gender roles, the quest for new family alliances in the Nineties or women's strength of friendship, particularly in times of crisis, Boys on the Side means to fill in the gaps. As a narrative stylist, Ross is best known for his "warmth"--the ability to charm with a wisecrack one moment and get his audience going for the Kleenex the next, and he lays it on so thick that you might yearn for a cold blast of air-conditioning here and there. While the movie's various issues, stances and messages jockey for position, there's hardly room to breathe. Boys is very effective (and affecting) in spots, but it has little of the surreal, half-crazed energy on which Thelma & Louise fairly soared along. By contrast, Roos and Ross keep telling us not to miss the point--any point.

For 35 or 40 minutes, this is a very funny, very touching movie. Hip black Jane and lame white Robin set out from New York as a ride-share mismatch from hell, then stop off in Pittsburgh just long enough for Jane's old friend Holly to bop her abusive boyfriend. The Odd Couple thus grows into the Odd Trio, and the actors cook up a lively chemistry. Goldberg chain-smokes Marlboros; fussy Parker sprays her earphones with disinfectant; sweet, goofy Barrymore hits on the clerk at a gas station. But as they talk and travel, we feel the three becoming friends--and evolving under each other's influence. That old we're-all-in-this-together thing floods through the film like a blessing, and its emotional rhythms seem just right.

But neither the cast nor the people behind the cameras can stay away from the stock gender-catharsis buttons, or from terminal sincerity. Our accidental travelers come to ground in Tucson (not far from Thelma and Louise's symbolic Grand Canyon, come to think of it), there to put down roots, and the movie seems to stop, like the red van. Roos throws in a likable bartender (James Remar), who falls for the troubled, ever-sicker Robin, and an incredibly dumb cop named, incredibly, Abe Lincoln (Matthew McConaughey), who falls for Holly the fugitive. The movie also introduces Robin's mother (Anita Gillette), for the purpose of showing how middle-class white women in America used to be. These people are all tacked onto the film like ornaments.

Meanwhile, Boys tiptoes very gingerly around the gay issue. Goldberg's Jane clearly has a sex life, and we understand, halfway home, that she's fallen in love with her opposite, Robin. But discretion, if not the prospect of a big mainstream audience, keeps Jane's sexuality way out on the edges of the film, whereas it examines the various traumas (and actual heterosexual couplings) of Robin and Holly in vivid detail. This is not to say that Boys on the Side should be aflame with Sapphic passion: It is to say that a movie that purports to show the way women live in 1995 might have been bolder--at least in the interests of equal time.

In most other ways, too, the picture just misses. I found myself wanting to like it, wanting to feel it click in, and feeling continually disappointed. By the time director Ross does what he does best--which is jerk tears--you may feel manipulated, then plagued by thoughts of what might have come to pass along Jane, Robin and Holly's road to mutual discovery.

 
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