THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Last year at a film festival, I met a woman named Cynthia Plaster Caster. She was there to promote a documentary about herself. Cynthia is perhaps the most famous of all rock & roll groupies. To this day, she continues to perform the activity that made her so well-known: she makes plaster casts of rock stars' genitalia. Her most famous casting was of Jimi Hendrix, but there are plenty of others. At the screening of her film, Cynthia was quick to say that she was intensely selective about whose genitals she made casts of. Only musicians whom she respected and adored could qualify. What surprised me when I met Cynthia Plaster Caster was that, despite the somewhat salacious nature of her hobby, it wasn't about sex; it was about the music. Maybe that's the one thing people don't realize about groupies. She knows it, as does Cameron Crowe, who created a 3-dimensional groupie called Penny Lane in his brilliant film Almost Famous. The new comedy The Banger Sisters understands this as well. The liberating power of music is the key; everything else is just a red herring.

Goldie Hawn stars as Suzette, who was once half of a notorious duo of groupies known as "the Banger Sisters." There were no plaster casts here, but they did take Polaroids of rock stars' penises. They had a lot of sex, too. Suzette is pretty quick to talk about her tryst with Jim Morrison, but her tone is more reverant than sexual. Decades later, she hasn't changed too much. She still dresses flamboyantly and makes advances toward musicians, many of whom are younger and therefore more interested in groupies their own age. When she is fired from her job as a bartender, Suzette experiences an emotional crisis. She hops in her car and heads for Phoenix, where she intends to look up her former "sister," Lavinia (Susan Sarandon).

Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn are former groupies who reunite in The Banger Sisters
Suzette is shocked by what she finds. Lavinia is now an ultraconservative wife to a lawyer with political aspirations and the mother of two teenage daughters. The women are reunited, but Vinnie (as Suzette calls her) isn't happy to see her old friend. In some ways, she is appalled that Suzette hasn't changed in all these years. In other ways, she is jealous. In one scene, Lavinia mourns the loss of her wild ways by lamenting that all of her clothes are beige, whereas Suzette looks "like a flower." The two spend a couple days together, despite some awkwardness. Lavinia's daughters - Hannah (Erika Christensen) and Ginger (Eva Amurri, Sarandon's real-life daughter) - each have some of that same rebellious spirit that she used to have. But they are floored to hear that their mother was once something other than the buttoned-down conservative that she currently is. Fed up, Lavinia cuts her hair, puts on some sexy clothes, and heads out for a Banger Sisters reunion with Suzette.

Meanwhile, there's an entire subplot about Suzette's friendship with Harry (Geoffrey Rush), an uptight, anal-retentive guy she picks up on her way to Phoenix. Harry is as rigid as you could imagine. He's a failed writer who can't stand anyone invading or "corrupting" his space. The film thinks it's funny to pair him up with the one character who can play the irresistible force to his immovable object. I found the character to be wildly out of place, and the resolution of his little drama (he plans to shoot his father) only detracts from the main plot.

Initially, I thought I wasn't going to like The Banger Sisters. The early scenes are slow, with too much Harry. About 25 minutes in, the movie really starts to take off. The reason why it works is because it focuses on Lavinia. Yes, Suzette is the flashier role, but the other character is the film's heart. Through the reunion, Lavinia comes to realize that she has surrendered a large part of herself. She's become so focused on what other people think that her personality has become almost obsolete. As the story progresses, we come to understand that her days as a groupie weren't about sex. They were about a time when she could be herself, with no one around to tell her that she wasn't measuring up to a preconceived image. She loved music, loved musicians. She could have fun and explore her interests, even if that sometimes meant being a bit daring. Lavinia spends the last half hour of the film trying to figure out how she can bring a little bit of her personality back without ruining the roles of wife and mother that she has also come to love.

Susan Sarandon is an actress I will watch in absolutely anything. She always gives a terrific performance, and that's the case here. Done improperly, Lavinia could have been just a sitcom cliche. Sarandon makes her a real person struggling to reconcile her old self with her new self. Goldie Hawn is very good as well, playing a woman who never quite grew up. Suzette, in many respects, still lives in the 1960's. And although she is who she is, there's also a feeling that maybe she missed out on a few things along the way. Hawn herself managed to shed the ditzy go-go dancer image she had decades ago to create a new image as a talented and versatile actress. Nevertheless, she probably knew a lot of people who never made the transition from one thing to another. You get the impression that she based her performance on some of those people.

The Banger Sisters is not a profound movie, nor is it the brain-dead comedy it might have been. Writer/director Bob Dolman finds a balance somewhere in between. A rewrite might have made this a deeper, more resonant film; if nothing else, though, Dolman was at least smart enough to cast two actresses capable of finding the note of truth in this story and playing it beautifully.

( out of four)

The Banger Sisters is rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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