Intended as a spirited anthem for the liberating effects of the free-sexed sixties, The Banger Sisters is so insipid it may turn even superannuated hippies into raging neocons. Goldie Hawn plays Suzette, a notorious groupie who, along with her best friend, Vinnie, played by Susan Sarandon, banged her way through the rock-and-roll world – hence their nickname. The film takes place in the present. Suzette, tattooed and silicone-enhanced and broke, has just been fired from her job as a bartender in a West Hollywood rock club. She heads for Phoenix to look up Vinnie, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years, and, en route, picks up a frazzled, failed screenwriter, Harry (Geoffrey Rush, in a rare terrible performance), for whom she becomes a kind of muse. (“Let me give you a hand job,” she says concernedly.) In Phoenix, she discovers that Vinnie has become Lavinia, a fanatically prim matron and a pillar of the garden-party set whose past life is unknown to her straitlaced lawyer husband (Robin Thomas) and two rebellious daughters (Erika Christensen and Eva Amurri). Lavinia is mortified to see her former friend again, and pretty soon we get the idea: Suzette still likes to fuck, but Lavinia doesn’t – hence she’s an uptight prig. Lavinia has sold out her sixties self, which the movie would have us believe was the best part of her.
Just to make sure we realize this, writer-director Bob Dolman has made her into an icicle who, of course, melts under the influence of her old-time friend. She shears her hair and borrows Suzette’s skin-tight snakeskin pants. She digs up what she calls her “rock-cock collection” of Polaroids saved from long ago, and the two women have a giddy time going over them. This scene represents a novel approach to female bonding, but the fun quickly drains from the picture when we realize that Lavinia is now supposed to be free to live her life unfettered by lies. Her husband eyes his wife with newfound respect. (One might think he’d be much more upset about that collection.) Her older daughter, who dismissed her mother for being a stiff, delivers a high-school valedictory address in which she talks about the importance of being true to oneself.
And what of Suzette? In its own way, the film ridicules her as much as it does Lavinia, but the jibes are much softer, and we’re never in any doubt that she is on the side of the angels. She has the power to change lives for the better, even her own. I’m not sure the world needs to see Goldie Hawn play a cross between a sprite and an earth mother, and I’m quite sure we don’t need to see Susan Sarandon armored, for our edification, in sexual repression. Part of what makes Sarandon memorable as an actress is the slightly dazed sensuality she exudes; in movies like Atlantic City and Bull Durham and even Thelma & Louise, she brought carnality to comedy in ways we hadn’t seen before. She could be sly and stinging, but it was sex that made her delicious, deliriously so. It’s a cheat for Sarandon to play a matron who needs to reclaim her inner groupie; it clamps down on her appeal.
The phenomenon of sixties refugees’ looking for nookie in order to feel young again is a subject ripe for comedy. But The Banger Sisters is like a whoopie cushion that turns into a Hallmark card. You can’t buy its heartwarming message of sisterhood and acceptance, because the game is rigged from the get-go. The reason Suzette’s Dionysian flooziness comes across as life-affirming is that Lavinia, with her picture-perfect family, is never allowed to be anything but frigid (until the end). The film never offers a credible real-world suburban-mom alternative to Suzette’s wayfaring, and as a result, neither woman is remotely believable as a person or as an archetype or as anything else. Inauthenticity is the keynote of The Banger Sisters; even the mostly oldies soundtrack has cover versions mixed in with originals. The best way to kill the spirit of the sixties is to sanitize it with preachiness, which is what happens here. That rock-cock collection might as well be a box of baseball cards.
Another movie that should have been a lot riskier, given its subject matter, is Secretary, a naughty trifle about a priggish lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), and his sadomasochistic helpmate, Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Most of this chamber drama – which was directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a Mary Gaitskill short story – involves Edward’s getting increasingly hot over Lee’s clerical mistakes and taking it out on her appreciative bottom (for starters). The pace throughout is pretty glacial, which is meant to make every thwack meaningful. Spader, enunciating each of his syllables as if speech itself were a form of S&M, is in a constant state of slow burn; it’s the most James Spader–ish performance he’s ever given. Gyllenhaal, with her bright saucer eyes and her aging-cherub face, is always worth watching, and she has some fine, flukey moments when the bliss of self-abasement sends her sky-high. She seems primed to be in a much more disturbingly comic movie than the one she ended up in. For all its Buñuellian pretensions, Secretary is deeply conventional: Edward and Lee accept their bondage as the way to a more fulfilling life. It’s the filmmakers who need to be spanked.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger, at Film Forum, is a documentary by Eugene Jarecki that levels many of the same charges as those that appeared in a recent brief against the former secretary of State by Christopher Hitchens, who is interviewed in the film along with prime Kissinger hater Seymour Hersh, biographer Walter Isaacson, and, in Kissinger’s support, Alexander Haig and William Safire. The film focuses on Kissinger’s years as national-security adviser and secretary of State to presidents Nixon and Ford, and details his involvement in Vietnam, the secret bombing of Cambodia, Suharto’s invasion of East Timor, and the assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile. In a larger sense, this powerfully muckraking film is about the accountability of public figures and about how, in regard to international justice, there can be no exceptions.
The Banger Sisters
Directed by Bob Dolman; starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon.
Directed by Steven Shainberg; starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.