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by: Michael Dequina

In late August, the Fox network is premiering a new period sitcom called That '70s Show. If I didn't know any better, I would have believed that the pilot had already aired--on the big screen, under the title Slums of Beverly Hills. For her first film, writer-director Tamara Jenkins has served up a well-meaning, often engaging comedic slice of 1976 SoCal life, but even its pleasures would seem more at home on the tube.

This is not to say, however, that Slums is without big screen-worthy virtures. First and foremost, Jenkins offers an unusually frank depiction of a teenage girl's sexual awakening, that of 15-year-old Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne). Vivian is neither completely excited over nor frightened of her burgeoning womanhood, as films often depict; instead, she occupies a more realistic, tentative middle ground. A sore subject for her is her ever-increasing breast size, but she is not afraid to use the allure of such assets, allowing a potential paramour (Kevin Corrigan) to touch them during what is only a second meeting. Jenkins also deserves credit for showing Vivian experiment with a vibrator. While she deserves credit for the mere inclusion of such a scene, Jenkins's real accomplishment is making it tasteful, realistic, and not at all ridiculous.

Lyonne is an endearing lead, and her performance is well-supported by the rest of the cast, including Alan Arkin as her father, Murray; and Marisa Tomei as her recovering drug addict cousin, Rita. However, the cast is ultimately only as good as the material, and Jenkins's script, while consistently amusing and full of nicely droll one-liners, is fairly thin. The title refers to the seedy areas on the fringes of the Beverly Hills city limits where the divorced Murray insists he and his three children--Vivian, wisecracking older brother Ben (David Krumholtz), and nondescript youngest Rickey (Eli Marienthal)--make their home (he wants them to get the education only the Hills of Beverly schools can provide). Or, rather, homes--the family rarely stays in one location for longer than a month, setting the stage for a few location changes that would suit an ongoing television series. Then again, a lot of Slums would suit a series, for the film feels like a pilot for a made-for-Showtime series, with its formulaic episodes of zaniness (the growing comic complications in a scene with an unconscious Rita follows a predictable "let's top this" crescendo), a family member who pops in to stir the pot as a "guest star" (Rita), plot threads eventually tied together into a cutesy little bow, and an open ended resolution that screams out "to be continued," all of which is laced with enough raunch to keep it from seeing broadcast network airwaves.

Slums of Beverly Hills is a reasonably enjoyable lark whose 91 minutes go down smoothly. You're guaranteed a laugh here and there, and plenty more smiles. But it's the snack food equivalent of film--it satisfies for a while, but it doesn't fill you up in the long run.

RATING: *** (out of *****)


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