The Banger Sisters (2002)

D: Bob Dolman
S: Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn

Poorly paced, badly structured comic drama featuring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon as former groupies now hitting middle age. In the years since their lively exploits with various rock stars earned them the nickname "The Banger Sisters" from Frank Zappa, their lives have taken disparate paths. Hawn is still clinging to the past, hanging out in a Los Angeles bar as a living relic of times now meaningless to most of its clientele. Meanwhile Sarandon has abandoned her youth to the closet and lives a life of middle class respectability in Phoenix, Arizona. She is none too happy when Hawn comes seeking her out, especially as her own teenage daughters are challenging her authority and her husband has burgeoning political ambitions which one wrong social move might bring crashing down.

What seems a solid enough hi-concept premise is surprisingly badly handled by director and screenwriter Bob Dolman. In an attempt to weave some psychological depth into it and enliven its more routine narrative elements, the story meanders slowly through an overlong road movie set-up which partly involves Hawn hooking up with loony Geoffrey Rush. Rush is a blocked writer with a father complex who is on his way to Phoenix to purge his demons by killing the old man. This bizarre character seems to come from another film altogether, and after exploring the relationship between him and Hawn for a while, Dolman finally brings his stars together and the original movie gets underway again. This one is mildly amusing if altogether too predictable, and then it wraps up extremely abruptly. Sarandon, after one night of irresponsible fun with her old pal, is instantly transformed forever and the film closes out with a valedictorian speech by her daughter which screams screenwriting 101. Meanwhile the Rush sub-plot is brought to its conclusion with another narrative lurch and a predictable twist which is not as wistfully profound as its writer probably had hoped.

The most frustrating thing about The Banger Sisters is the promise of something interesting lurking under its surface. The performances are actually pretty good, and as such the actors make these faintly ridiculous characters interesting enough to at least suggest the film could have gone deeper. Hawn is very good as the free-spirited but weather-beaten refugee from the sixties, a role which has uncanny echoes of her daughter's turn in Almost Famous. Physically, vocally, and, in screenplay terms, psychologically, she carries the role. Though the character serves a painfully obvious metaphorical function, the actor makes her convincing on a human level. Sarandon has fun in her corresponding part, a model of prim repression which is shaken off with a believable reluctance. Indeed the night-club scene upon which her change of attitude turns seems to suggest an interesting event in progress rather than a complete transformation. It is unfortunate that the film does not take the time to explore the process more fully and instead barrels towards its pat redemptive conclusion. Rush has been asked to do something of a riff on his characterisation of David Helfgott, a quasi-parodic portrait of a lovable neurotic which seems intended to be more heartwarming than it actually is. He is a capable enough actor to hold it together, investing the character with enough range to carry him through, but even he cannot overcome the contrivances in the film's structure.

It seems as though Dolman had sincere enough intentions here, and has sought for a way to work his thematic concerns through familiar story elements. The film feels like a first draft screenplay though, in need of development and refinement before it settles into either a straight-out conventional mainstream comic narrative or before committing itself to a more left-of-centre social critique which has the force of its satirical convictions. Without either the comforts of a classical narrative to lull the audience into a happy feel good rhythm and without the edgy unease of an off-beat indie, the film fails to achieve any kind of pace. It stumbles incoherently through a mixture of fragmented storytelling and half-baked characterisation, ultimately ending up trying to have it both ways with an ending which simply doesn't wash. The viewer is left with the impression of a movie which is less sure about what it wants to be than its characters appear to, undermining whatever points the director wanted to make about the necessity to be true to one's inner self and open to a range of experiences.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.