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The Banger Sisters

Director: Bob Dolman
Cast: Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon, Geoffrey Rush, Erika Christensen, Eva Amurri, Robin Thomas

(Fox Searchlight Pictures; US theatrical: 20 Sep 2002; 2002)

To Tell the Truth

“We are an industry built on a lot of subterfuge and fantasy and fakery, and I think to tell the truth is brave.”
—Jamie Lee Curtis, Dateline, 15 September 2002


Jamie Lee Curtis’s recent decision to pose for photos “un-retouched” for the September issue of More magazine has garnered a flurry of media attention, including an interview with Dateline‘s Maria Shriver. (It’s no small irony that Curtis starred with Shriver’s famously hard-bodied husband in 1994’s True Lies, winning all kinds of “praise” for her stunningly worked-out figure.) Reportedly, Curtis’s “tell all story” has pushed the magazine’s sales toward “breaking the single issue sales record.”


Whatever this record-breaking might say—about admiration or prurience—Curtis has a clear idea of what she‘s saying. At 43, she’s tired of “playing” the packaging game, and, with no film roles “on the horizon,” is taking her stand against it, encouraging consumers, especially the kids for whom she’s now written five books, to accept themselves and others for who they are, however “imperfect.” Shriver extols Curtis’s courage, adding, “But the question is whether in the process, she may be blowing the lid off her career in film.”


This is the question that keeps the machine running, mainly because so few people want to ask it, much less answer it. And it’s precisely the sort of question that drives The Banger Sisters, which purports to be a celebration of women over 50, casting Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn as former groupies. Rather too cutely, Hawn’s Suzette seems a survivor-version of Penny Lane, the character her real-life daughter Kate Hudson played to great acclaim in Almost Famous. Suzette has hung onto her idealism and wardrobe 20 years, and remembers the ‘70s fondly, all anti-war politics and free-love practices, and now tends bar at L.A.‘s Whiskey a Go Go.


As The Banger Sisters begins, the just-fired, feeling-desperate-but-still-game Suzette finds herself unable to trick (it’s a younger girls’ game), she decides that she’ll ask her old friend and co-banger Lavinia (Sarandon) for a little stopgap cash. When her car breaks down, Suzette hitches a ride with twitchy, neurotic writer Harry (Geoffrey Rush), whom she promptly beds (her seduction begins like this: “I am such a good blowjob-giver”), whereupon he turns into a happy, generous soul. While he remains consistently unbearable in both his incarnations—depressive grump or gushing boyfriend—the conversion is contrived and abrupt.


Suzette’s magic takes slightly longer to work on Lavinia, now married to dullsville Phoenix lawyer (Robin Thomas) with two spunky daughters, Hannah (Erika Christenson) and Ginger (Sarandon’s real-life daughter, Eva Amurri). Worst of all, she’s come to favor pert hairdos and beige suits.


Poor Lavinia is, of course, in dire need of rescue. Suzette’s well-timed grand entrance is initiated by a super-convenient coincidence: she stumbles on Hannah, bad-acid-tripping on prom night, in the very hotel where she’s staying with Harry. They survive the night, with Harry looking on with admiring, moist eyes, as Suzette holds Hannah’s pukey face to her bosom and rocks her to sleep. Next AM, Suzette delivers the errant child to her homestead, startling Lavinia, who has so deeply repressed her past that she doesn’t recognize her old chum (who looks almost exactly as she did back in the day), and comes at her with a garden tool.


They argue some, then Suzette wangles a dinner invitation. Much to Lavinia’s initial embarrassment and Husband’s increasing disdain, she regales the daughters with tales of mom’s rock-concert antics. Hannah and Ginger can’t believe it, giggling over the image of mom in a mosh pit. They don’t trust adults, righteously: the film’s most convincing scene, which, granted, is not saying much, takes place in Hannah’s bedroom, between the girls—no sputtering or acting out, just a sensible conversation between two sisters who see their parents as alien creatures. They’re flabbergasted when Suzette asserts that their prim garden-party-organizing mother “was a blast. She was a kick-ass girlfriend!”


There’s something charming about Lavinia’s resistance, and for a minute, you’re grateful, thinking that the film, at last, is getting over the stereotypes and move on to something that resembles women’s experiences. For all her efforts to maintain her decorum—and they are vigorous—her family’s disbelief that she was ever capable of such expansive desire, let alone behavior, is too much. She decides to “go out”: she cuts her hair, borrows some un-beige clothes from Suzette, and goes dancing and drinking, shaking her booty with the rest of the kids at some Phoenix hot spot. This reverence for sexual experiences recalled with relish, as well as not-so-youthful bodies has led some viewers to fret. Middle-aged women shouldn’t be showing cleavage and cameras shouldn’t focus on their backsides. Parents shouldn’t be admitting they had sex or did/do drugs, and they certainly shouldn’t be wearing halter tops, visible bra straps, and faux-lizard pants. For these few minutes, The Banger Sisters venerates imperfection and adventure.


Thrilled and rejuvenated, the girls head back home to peruse Lavinia’s photo collection: a series of rock-stars’ cocks. They giggle and smoke some ancient dope, and feel warm and generous—until the plot intrudes. Husband discovers them, she talks back, and at last, a daughter-related crisis brings everyone back together, better people for having known Suzette.


This very clunkiness, so familiar and so reductive, is, here, even worse than it sounds. First time director Bob Dolman, who wrote Willow and Far and Away before he wrote this script, connects scenes in a cursory way, and the trajectory is glaringly obvious, an After School Special For Adults. Precisely because The Banger Sisters poses questions about aging—how women do it, how they resist and embrace it, how difficult it is to do in front of others—its falling short is all the more disappointing. Lavinia and Suzette probably deserve better. Sarandon and Hawn definitely do.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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