We’re Not Regular Poor – Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

Before her popular supporting role in the American Pie movies, before the messy public battles with drug addiction that nearly killed her, and long before her career turnaround in Orange Is the New Black, Russian Doll, and Poker Face (officially renewed for a second season on Peacock!), a young actress named Natasha Lyonne made her first breakthrough splash starring in the 1998 coming-of-age dramedy Slums of Beverly Hills. The movie holds up pretty well, and watching again now, provides a glimpse at Lyonne’s unique screen presence in its early development.

Just 19-years-old at the time of release, the actress proved she was capable of carrying a feature film built around her. Even working opposite a cast of other up-and-coming talent, a (then) recent Oscar winner, and some genuine screen legends, Slums of Beverly Hills is unmistakably Natasha Lyonne’s movie, start to finish. It should be no surprise she’d go on to bigger career successes, even if the journey to get there may have been rockier and taken longer than expected.

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) - Natasha Lyonne, Kevin Corrigan, Alan Arkin, and David Krumholtz
Title:Slums of Beverly Hills
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Watched On: HBO Max
Also Available On: DVD
HBO (On Demand)
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

As the title suggests, even America’s most famously wealthy and glamorous community has an underside where the lower classes struggle to get by. When the film was released, writer/director Tamara Jenkins claimed that the story was loosely based on her own childhood in the 1970s. Her fictional surrogate is Vivian Abromowitz (Lyonne), a young teenage girl whose family regularly uproots her to move around from one low-income apartment to another. At any given moment without notice, often in the early hours of the morning, her father may roust Vivian and her two brothers and declare that it’s time to move on. Typically, this is timed so that he can skip out on paying that month’s rent.

The father, Murray (Alan Arkin), isn’t a bad guy. He means well and tries to do right by his kids, always staying within the Beverly Hills ZIP code to ensure that they’ll attend the same good schools. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have any sense for managing money, and his various schemes to get rich, or even just make ends meet, never work out in his favor. Vivian thinks he’s an embarrassment, as most teenagers do of their parents, but the story is a testament how how much capacity people (especially when they’re young) have to normalize even the strangest of circumstances. Having gone through this routine so many times, Vivian can’t even get angry about it anymore. It’s just an annoying thing her father makes them do every few months.

When Vivian’s flighty older cousin Nina (Marisa Tomei) escapes from a stint in rehab, Murray sees this as an opportunity. He picks her up and invites her to live with the clan in their latest cramped one-bedroom apartment. He then hatches a plan to get Nina enrolled in nursing school, all for the purpose of convincing her father (his brother) to pay him a monthly stipend to take care of the girl and clean her up. Like most of Murray’s scams, this one is only half thought-out and doomed to inevitable failure.

Jenkins wrote the screenplay at the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab and reportedly so impressed founder Robert Redford that he agreed to sign on as a producer to help her get it made. Undoubtedly, Redford’s most significant contribution was to line up such a great supporting cast for a new director’s first feature. In addition to Arkin and Tomei (still relatively fresh off her Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny), Carl Reiner and Rita Moreno play Nina’s parents, and Jessica Walter appears as a promising sugar mama that Murray attempts to woo. Other recognizable faces include David Krumholtz (who’d already had memorable roles in the hits Addams Family Values and The Santa Clause) as Vivian’s older brother and Kevin Corrigan (who’d been in Goodfellas and True Romance) as a new neighbor that she probably shouldn’t hang around with so much. Perhaps a little harder to recognize is Mena Suvari (who’d be much more prominent in the following year’s American Beauty) hidden behind a bandage in a bit part as a girl recovering from a nose job.

All the same, Lyonne is front-and-center throughout the entire movie, and proved to be an exciting find. Still a little fresh-faced at the time, the actress more than holds her own against the veterans, and brings a refreshingly wry attitude to the role that immediately sets her apart from the usual ingénue starlets. Vivian may not have life figured out yet, but her experiences have forced her to adopt a very pragmatic, matter-of-fact approach to things like relationships and her own burgeoning sexuality.  

Slums of Beverly Hills is a funny movie, but it’s not a flat-out comedy. The story can get quite serious, and its subject matter about the difficult road life’s losers must forge is ultimately a bit depressing. That it can strike this balance and somehow come out entertaining, even hopeful in the end, is an achievement worth celebrating.

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) - Marisa Tomei

Video Streaming

Although Slums of Beverly Hills was released on DVD in 1999, no Blu-ray edition ever followed in the United States. (Apparently, one was released in Germany.) Fortunately, a high-def master of the film aired on HBO and is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Picture quality starts off heavily grainy over the opening credits (all optical composites) but tames down a bit afterwards. Clearly an older master, the 1.85:1 image looks decent overall, though it’s hardly home theater eye candy. Soft for the most part, the picture is at least reasonably detailed in its best scenes. If any Digital Noise Reduction was used, it doesn’t stand out. Both colors and contrast look flat but adequate.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack has clear dialogue and a jaunty score, but is entirely front-heavy with no noticeable surround activity even after upmixing. Forget about bass or dynamic range. Those aren’t even relevant when talking about a low-budget indie production like this. It sounds fine.


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