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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : The Slings and Arrows of Mild Misfortune : DRIVING UNDER THE AFFLUENCE by Julia Phillips ; HarperCollins $24, 321 pages

November 10, 1995|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I embark on this review with great trepidation, since it seems that anyone who talks to or about Julia Phillips becomes fodder for her next book. It is one of the many ironies that are the foundation of this wild, wobbly piece of performance art: To tinker a bit with Tennessee Williams, Phillips has always depended on the unkindness of strangers. And so-called friends. And one-time friends. And ex- or about to be ex-business partners. Her worst nightmares turn into her best-selling books.

Phillips is a frightening creature--too smart for the room by half, truly, but as undisciplined as a 5-year-old alone in a room with a tray of double-chocolate cupcakes. Her first book ripped Hollywood apart. This time she takes another swipe at Tinseltown, but there are other targets as well: the publishers of her first book, restaurants that won't let her in, clubs that will, O.J. and his lawyers.

But behind all the intellectual speed-rapping (close-up here of the heroine's face, a single tear stuck in the Preparation H she slathers under her eyes when she needs to look better than she feels) there is the story of a hard-working woman who cannot make it in a man's world, a single mom being pursued by E. McGuffin, IRS agent extraordinaire, who (another tear) expects said working woman to pay her taxes. Can you believe it?

The saleswoman from Maxfield's, that toniest of tony boutiques, is trying to put Phillips in designer shape for her publicity tour on the first book, and Phillips is being strangled by, as she puts it, her "tax problema."

Truly there is no justice. Julia Phillips has been reduced to wearing an old Yohji Yamamoto ("$4,000 on sale ") to her daughter's college graduation and borrowing money, all because the world simply refuses to treat her right.

If you hear sarcasm and paranoia here, it is only because the book itself is drenched in those two particularly self-indulgent emotions. Whatever "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again" had to say about Hollywood--and it skewered its share of deserving victims--this time the rant sounds an awful lot like self-pity with a spiked 'do.

If you take away the clever, hip-hop pacing, the basic story line makes you wince: Bright lady with bad habits roars through an unexamined life sniping at everyone who gets in her way. Work is sometimes hard. Money is sometimes tight. She has root canal. Her house needs work.

Sounds familiar enough. Sounds like the sort of midlife stuff that sometimes, though not this time, causes a body to pause, reflect and maybe restructure. But not Julia Phillips, oh no. She actually expects us to feel sorry for her because she can't fly first class without pulling strings or begging favors--and sorry that her graduation suit is past its very expensive prime.

Tough in the strapped '90s to feel a lot of empathy. The one thing about this diatribe that is sad is that Phillips has a soul, hidden back there somewhere behind the zingers. She loves and admires her daughter, even when the kid votes for Pete Wilson. She respects and admires her parents, and manages to step outside herself just long enough to write a moving eulogy for her dad.

There is more here than meets the eye--but Phillips, having found a riff that works, refuses to budge from her position as Hollywood's most unrepentant incorrigible. She's very good at it: She has a razor-sharp eye for public pretension, and a seasoned impatience with blowhards, who abound in her extended neighborhood.

She sticks with what worked last time; this time, though, it grates, and not just for the Geffens of this world. One might delicately suggest that Phillips stop griping and get on with it.

Comedian Lenny Bruce, whom Phillips thanks in her brief acknowledgments, railed at an unjust world, but his complaints were about not being allowed to express himself. Phillips rails at an unjust world--but the reader gets the unpleasant sense that money or power might buy her cozy silence. She writes like a kid who's mad at the world because she didn't get chosen for the playground basketball game.

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