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'Boys on the Side' is female bonding without bashing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The boys aren't in the 'hood, or on the bus, or in the band, or back in town in "Boys on the Side." And, as the title insists, they're not in the middle of the lives of the three women whose adventure the movie chronicles.

The film is a celebration of female bonding. It follows as the three, separated by race, class, experience, age, sexual orientation and ultimate aspiration, discover how much more binds than divides them. In fact, it's almost the feminist inversion of the old World War II platoon movie, like "A Walk in the Sun," where guys named "Brooklyn," "Tex," "O'Hollorahan," "Virgil" and "Lt. Wilson" got together to knock out a Nazi pillbox. Call this one "A Drive in the Sun."

The drive, a hoary but efficient narrative mechanism that holds the movie together, is thrown together out of economic necessity and is supposed to run from New York to San Diego. But it comes to a halt in Tucson, where one of the three squad members develops health problems.

Whoopi Goldberg is Jane, the Mother Courage of the unit; in a man's movie, she'd be the tough old sergeant who didn't panic under fire. A hip, earthy New York blues singer who happens to be lesbian, she's the anchor.

By contrast, Mary-Louise Parker's Robin is an uptight yuppie real estate agent who appears to have been turned out by a factory that produces Perfect Young Republicans; in the war movie analogue, she'd be the young man from the good home who had a dark secret.

The third member, Holly (Drew Barrymore), is the kid. All platoons always have a kid, and she's this one's. A decade younger, linked to an abusive drug dealer, she breaks away to join the unit and soon proves herself to be callow, innocent (in all ways except sexually) and completely endearing at once (it's probably a break-out performance for her).

"Boys on the Side" was written by men, but except for one scene, it feels authentic to female experience, possibly because the three actors work so hard and have such convincing chemistry. It helps immensely that, ultimately, the film is conceived as an inclusive rather than exclusive document, which means to bring the sexes together rather than drive them apart.

In other words, it's not a bitter screed against the evil idiocies of men. Rather, it's an invocation of the differences between male and female cultures that doesn't quite rule out the possibility that under certain provisional circumstances, the two genders can possibly get together and might even -- this is a stretch, admittedly -- develop some mutual affection.

The questionable scene is probably the one that will make the movie a hit, however. It revolves around Parker's inability to utter ZTC a certain gutter term for vagina and watches as, under Goldberg's expert, worldly tutelage, she finally breaks through and is able to yell it like a full-throated Amazonian war cry. It's a funny, dirty scene, and it works, but I didn't believe it for a second.

Nothing else in the first two-thirds of film feels quite so forced. Rather, even under the direction of super-slick Herbert Ross, the film achieves a kind of ditsy, down-home feel, a cuddly quality.

The men are decent guys, not studs: James Remar as a bartender with an interest in Parker, Matthew McConaughey as an earnest young policeman who loves Barrymore, even as he busts her. It's not about much except going along to get along. It's about not merely the power but, more poignantly, the complete joy of sisterhood.

As it turns out, there's a harsh secret at the end -- the death kind of secret -- but we don't get to its raw power until we have an unfortunate plot twist. This is a murder trial that gets all three of them back to Pittsburgh, and it's the least convincing gambit in the movie.

It feels as if at some story conference, somebody noted that the screenplay was only 90 pages long and it had to be 110 pages long, so screenwriter Don Roos dipped into his file of unproduced scripts and pulled 20 pages from "Pittsburgh Mayhem," originally written for Don Johnson back when Don was big.

Fortunately, "Boys on the Side" rallies. For all its flaws, it has a big, sloppy heart -- provided mostly by Goldberg who, spared the necessity of carrying the movie, is more relaxed and buoyant than she's been in years -- and a sense of connection with the important things. It's ultimately about getting along and learning to care. You wish it were better, but you're glad it's there.

"Boys on the Side"

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Drew Barrymore

Directed by Herbert Ross

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (profanity, nudity and sexual behavior)

***

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