Boys on the Side (1995)

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Directed by Herbert Ross
Written by Don Roos

Rated R

Whoopi Goldberg as Jane DeLuca
Mary-Louise Parker as Robin Nickerson
Drew Barrymore as Holly Pulchik
Matthew McConaughey as Abe Lincoln
James Remar as Alex
Billy Wirth as Nick
Anita Gillette as Elaine Nickerson
Estelle Parsons as Louise
Amy Aquino as Anna

Sometimes it all comes down to divine timing. People come in and out of our lives, sometimes without reason or explanation. But there are times in life when the stars seem aligned, and you’re brought together with people who enrich your life, if only for a short while. Herbert Ross’s wonderful Boys on the Side is a film about three women who fit this scenario.

Jane (Whoopi Goldberg) is a modestly talented singer, and her career is going nowhere in New York. She’s less than heartbroken when she and her band are fired from a lousy job singing in a grungy lounge club. Jane resolves to hit the road and go to L.A., despite the fact that she will be going solo, though not entirely solo. Jane answers an ad placed in the newspaper by real estate agent Robin (Mary-Louise Parker), who believes the fact that Jane is first person to respond to her ad is a sign … of something. Despite her hesitations of taking a trip with “the whitest woman on the face of the planet,” she decides to embark on the trip with Robin.

They stop in Pittsburgh to visit Jane’s pal Holly (Drew Barrymore), a vivacious but flighty young woman in an abusive relationship with drug-dealing musician Nick (Billy Wirth). A confrontation with Holly’s boyfriend causes the three women to flee, and thus begins the main story of the film. It must be said that the scene where Robin interrupts Jane, Holly, and Nick is a great moment in a movie with many moments of greatness. The richness of Boys on the Side is not the plot, but how the characters react to the situations around them. Goldberg’s Jane is a lesbian, and we learn she has recently been dumped. Barrymore’s Holly is an infectious free spirit, and her character provides some of the film’s most amusing moments. Parker’s Robin is the most complex of the three, even though she appears to be the most cookie-cutter and predictable.

Goldberg once again fulfills the promise of her abilities as a great actress. Her astonishing debut, in 1985’s The Color Purple, was the best female performance of the year. She earned an Oscar for her wonderful performance in 1990’s Ghost, which was contrasted by a quieter and poignant role in the same year’s The Long Walk Home. We’ve seen her sing and cut up in enjoyable comedies like Sister Act, but her role in Boys on the Side is proof positive that Goldberg is an excellent serious actress, convincing and instinctive. It’s a little sad that this was probably Goldberg’s last great performance to date.

Barrymore is a revelation here. Prior to 2009’s HBO film Grey Gardens, this was Barrymore’s best role. She was, of course, a child star (as little Gertie in E.T. and the incendiary Firestarter), who became an addict, cleaned up and recovered, and is now a bonafide star, with films like Scream, Ever After, and 50 First Dates (among many others) to her credit. The character of Holly seems boy crazy, but there is a level of complexity and earthiness that’s a refreshing antidote to the other two women. The script, by Don Roos, is an absorbing study of how the differences between these female character complement each other. We understand their attraction to each other.

Finally, Parker is sublime in this role. She will make you laugh and break your heart. Her Robin is a plucky traditionalist, but she also carries a heavy load of deep wounds and disappointment. She is the friend everyone wants, and the one no one suspects has any secrets. Those suspicions usually turn out to be wrong. Matthew McConaughey is fantastic here as well, playing a police officer named, yes, Abe Lincoln, with a romantic interest in Holly. This film was before his big break in 1996’s A Time to Kill, and long before he left behind a plethora of insipid and uninspired romantic comedy junk, only to experience his “McConaughnaissance,” capped by a Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club and an Emmy nomination for True Detective.

In some ways the film reminded me of Robert Altman’s unsung classic 3 Women, a 1977 film that earned critical praise and even some critics’ awards (for Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek), but then drifted off into obscurity, before The Criterion Collection rescued it in 2004. The film was largely improvised, and like Boys on the Side, the plot details were secondary to the richness of the characters, and their response to the machinations of the plot. Altman knew how to direct a film about women, which means he must have possessed a strong collaborative nature to make a film so memorable and knowing.

Ross knows a thing or two about generating “laughter through tears,” to quote one character from his 1989 film Steel Magnolias. What’s more urgent is what he knows about directing a plausible and effective story about women, their bonds and connections, and the true definition of sisterhood. Boys on the Side is such a film, and it was one of 1995’s best.

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