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Boys portrays bittersweet, unconventional love story

Jane (Whoopi Goldberg) and Robin (Mary-Louise Parker) sing together in Boys on the Side.

Boys on the Side

Directed by Herbert Ross.

Written by Don Roos.

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore.

Sony Cheri.

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

In one scene during Boys on the Side, a man asks a woman why two adults can no longer have fun, get drunk, and then have great and carefree sex. Her response is one of silence, but we slowly discover an extended response through the growing relationship of two women.

Jane and Robin, played by Whoopi Goldberg and Mary-Louise Parker, discover conventional romance is utterly inappropriate during emotional upheaval. Only from far away, Boys on the Side plays like diffuse tragedy - it's a shame, because the movie has some good things to say when it isn't tangling itself in a gender-independence agenda presupposed by the film's title.

Though Boys on the Side begins with a cross-country road trip that captures a sense of female bonding and liberation, its core about relationships and vulnerability carefully cradle genuinely warm scenes between Goldberg and Parker. Almost too carefully, it harnesses the rapport between Goldberg's Jane and Parker's Robin. The movie makes us work hard to see through awkward scenes of Jane, a lesbian, flirting with other women. Equally difficult is seeing past Robin's bout with AIDS as just another plot gimmick.

Yet the sweetness between these characters perseveres through the film's careless dissipation of any energy that builds up. In a silly subplot, Jane's friend Holly (Drew Barrymore) accidentally murders her abusive boyfriend. The movie skates on thin ice as it catalyzes the liberation of the three women from men by the brutalization of Holly's drunk boyfriend. And when the trio laughs off the incident on the road, even the humorous role reversal on men seems only a cheap trick.

The heart of the movie's most effective moments explores the tensions that arise from presumptions about romantic love. Robin feels a void in her life not only because she is HIV-positive but also because she never had any luck with guys. Jane, a sort of failed lesbian, sets herself up for disappointment by falling in love with Robin, straight and terminally ill. As the two set out on a trip together and become good friends, it is obvious that any possibility of romance will remain forever unrequited, lest it burden their special bond.

As a final prayer that things will get better, the road trip Robin takes helps her come to terms with her growing self-doubt. But tensions flare between Jane and Robin until the moment they can admit their love for each other in a non-sexual manner. This relationship, as we learn, is not based upon the silly banter between girls and boys, but the special connection between two women. At the fringes of death, Robin shares with Jane an honesty and a capacity for empathy only found outside the arena of romance, either gay or straight.

Someone should pare down Boys on the Side to its barest moments of quiet elegy. Then, it could more fairly draw admiration for its warm look at how two mature women try to define themselves through each other and not through their previous, failed relationships.