Riding in Cars with Boys recounts the rough ride of a bright teenage girl, from early pregnancy and marriage through single motherhood, and it culminates triumphantly in her mid-30s. Penny Marshall directs the material–which is based on the memoir of the same title by Beverly Donofrio–as wry comedy, and for the most part, the approach works.

The movie begins in a working class Italian milieu of 1960s Connecticut. Drew Barrymore’s Beverly is a dreamer, a writer and a reckless adventurer. Her plans to go to college in New York are derailed, however, when she becomes pregnant by Raymond, her sweetly dumb boyfriend (Steve Zahn).

Bev has a clear sense of her importance, which makes it easy for her peers to dislike her. Easy for us, too: When the good-hearted Raymond makes the emergency marriage proposal, Beverly wails, “But you’re not the guy I’m supposed to end up with!” It is to Barrymore’s credit that she makes this self-absorbed character ultimately likable and sympathetic, but it’s her quest for likability that undercuts the credibility of her performance. She tends to coast along, looking cute, until it’s time to nail the punch line with a big delivery. She’s a buoyant and ingratiating presence, but not a complex one.

In a relatively daring stretch of the script, the film touches on the rage and resentment that unplanned children can inspire in their young mothers. However, Barrymore doesn’t really seem to want to go there; nor does Marshall. Marshall’s choice of an adorable, incessantly mugging cherub to play Bev’s son at this stage of the movie doesn’t help. As Bev’s dopey husband Raymond, however, Steve Zahn has the film’s best part, and he delivers brilliantly. Raymond is an eternal child, someone who needs to be mothered by the 15-year-old he’s knocked up. Inevitably, he turns to drink and drugs for the solace that Bev cannot and will not give him. It’s a wonderful performance, but, if anything, the role is too sweet and pathetic. There’s none of the con artistry that usually accompanies such characters, making this role ultimately less devastating than, say, Samuel L. Jackson’s harrowing turn as the crack-smoking prodigal son in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever.

Although the film belongs to Barrymore and Zahn, I slowly found myself riveted by a supporting actress, Brittany Murphy, who plays Bev’s best friend Fay. Murphy, a tiny woman, nonetheless constitutes a huge center of gravity in her scenes–her level gaze and measured timing make her compulsively watchable. While the haughty Bev knows that she is destined for better things than working-class drudgery, her friend Fay senses that she herself is not. Barrymore’s face is all about the pursuit and capture of happiness, Hollywood-style. Murphy’s face is all about the truth.

Having suddenly found myself in thrall to Brittany Murphy, whose name evokes shopping malls and soccer moms rather than a balls-to-the-wall actress, I went to check her out in Don’t Say a Word, a thriller starring Michael Douglas that opened a few weeks ago to wide disdain, but which is still knocking around the Triangle. Actually, the first 20 minutes are quite promising. Douglas’s Dr. Conrad is established as a devoted family man and a world-famous shrink, and in short order he is summoned to a state hospital to examine Murphy’s Elizabeth, a difficult, perhaps hopeless case. Conrad immediately suspects that the girl is a brilliant faker, damaged but not mentally ill.

These early scenes have a nervous energy in which Elizabeth responds to Dr. Conrad with catatonia, lewdness and violence, and the doctor parries with complacent professionalism. (This classic actors’ pas de deux, in which characters take turns conning each other, is a specialty of David Mamet and too few other directors.) As Douglas and Murphy squared off in the hospital room, I began anticipating the many directions the plot locomotives could go. What and why is she hiding? Will the good doctor cut through her defenses with his medical license and his marriage intact? But I had barely got comfortable on the edge of my seat when all the trains left the station, save for one: the two-hour Crapola Express.

In no time at all, Conrad conquers his patient and he, she and the film go hurtling down the well-worn tracks of the modern thriller, complete with a kidnapped child, the obligatory British villain intoning threats and taunts into a cell phone, and the race against the clock to mend the fabric of the sundered family. The ending is thuddingly banal, with the AARP-eligible Douglas swinging shovels and throwing haymakers in a paupers’ cemetery, as the cops arrive in the nick of time.

Sitting through the crushing badness of Don’t Say a Word, I found myself thinking about the limited roles for actresses who don’t fit the mold of Julia, Gwyneth and Cameron–indeed, Brittany Murphy is the dark cloud to their sunny visages. Portraying crazies is one option, and Murphy has done that, not only in Don’t Say a Word, but Girl, Interrupted and the television movie David and Lisa. Another route is playing quirky second fiddle to more wholesome, less interesting actresses like Winona Ryder, Drew Barrymore and Alicia Silverstone (in Clueless, Murphy played Tai, the sans-clue new girl that Silverstone’s Cher takes under her wing for a makeover. I remember my bafflement at the time: Who on earth let such a live wire into this film?).

Another early Murphy credit is Freeway, an entertaining schlockfest from 1996 which starred another talented but underutilized actress, Reese Witherspoon. A couple of years later, Witherspoon’s performance in the nasty satire Election proved to be her big break. Murphy is still waiting for hers–though she nearly got it when she was cast as Janis Joplin in a planned biopic of the singer, over the likes of Emily Watson and Courtney Love. Unfortunately, the project was shelved after a dispute over the all-important music rights. The New York Times reported a few weeks back that Murphy’s audition tape for that role has been circulating in Hollywood for the private viewing pleasure of studio executives. In it, she’s stumbling around a trashed hotel room, holding a bottle of whiskey and singing “Me and Bobby McGee.” It does sound sensational, and maybe one day that film will be made, with Brittany Murphy in the lead.

While the good stuff molders in the executives’ closets, we get to see flicks like From Hell, which was the nation’s No. 1 movie the weekend it opened. God only knows why, particularly since we’re supposed to be seeking light comedy these days. Grating, overbearing and simply terrible, this Hughes brothers film stars Johnny Depp as an opium-smoking, absinthe- and laudanum-drinking psychic police inspector. As the man assigned to apprehend Jack the Ripper, Depp underplays as usual, and his recessiveness is a relief from the relentless vulgarity of the proceedings.

From Hell is a study in aesthetic profanity, the debasement of an art form that once allowed for humor, nuance and beauty. This cattle prod of a movie shows that the directors don’t believe we’ll pay attention unless our senses are jolted at regular intervals. The hideous score cows us into fear and dread, and simple actions like doors opening become explosions into the frame. Bad guys don’t stalk their prey–they materialize from nowhere brandishing their weapons. And when there’s no plot component handy for a shock, the directors give us those false alarms of horror movies. You know: A fair maiden sleeps on a bed. A shadow appears on the wall. The soundtrack screeches to deafening volume. The shadow gets bigger and bigger and … and … and … Oh. Just a friend. Never mind.

The terminally vacant Heather Graham shows up as Mary Kelly, a red-haired Irish prostitute and love interest for Mr. Depp. Graham’s accent–English and Irish and San Diegan at turns–is the most striking thing about her performance. She’s not merely a bad actress, she’s undead. On the positive side, Ian Holm is a steady presence as the Queen’s physician. Another accomplished Brit, Katrin Cartlidge, clocks in with a good performance as a tough hooker named Dark Annie Chapman. Unfortunately for us, and fortunately for her, Dark Annie meets her Ripper halfway through this unbearable film. EndBlock