The Banger Sisters Review

A chick movie without a guy on the poster usually means one of two things - a "sisters are doing it for themselves" girl power comedy like The First Wives Club or a weepy "I hate you, no I love you, let's hug" female bonding picture like Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Surprise, surprise, The Banger Sisters avoids both of those deadly pitfalls and delivers a funny, wise and refreshingly adult comedy which isn't afraid to have a few rough edges.

This is a lesson in how good writing and acting can transcend a clichéed plot. The basic story - a free-spirited outsider shakes up a wealthy family's comfortable existence - is a variation on Down And Out In Beverly Hills, which was itself a remake of a 1932 French film. You can guess that the family will be uptight, that at first they won't take kindly to the intrusion into their suburban world but that eventually the newcomer will be accepted and will teach them a valuable lesson. All of this is true. The Banger Sisters doesn't break the mould but it does have the important ingredient of believable, likeable characters who appear to have minds and personalities of their own and don't seem shackled to the demands of the plot.

The family in question belong to Lavinia Kingsley (Susan Sarandon), who enjoys a privileged life in an affluent suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, where she does charity work and dotes on her lawyer husband and teenage daughters. What they don't know is that their conservative mother used to be a notorious rock groupie who, together with her best friend Suzette (Goldie Hawn), partied backstage with the biggest names of the sixties and seventies. It was Frank Zappa who originally named them the Banger Sisters and not because he didn't like their car. Twenty years ago, Lavinia gave up that life for security and a family but Suzette partied on.

As the movie opens, Suzette is being fired from her bartending job in an LA nightclub and is beginning to realise that her hedonistic days of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll are behind her. Unemployed and broke, she reluctantly decides to ask Lavinia for help and heads for Arizona, picking up Harry (Geoffrey Rush), a failed writer with some serious issues, on the way. Not surprisingly, Lavinia is less than delighted to see her, while her family are amazed she would know such a colourful character. Her hands already full with one daughter's high school graduation and the other's driving test, the last thing Lavinia needs is Suzette on her hands and the truth about her past coming out.

Hawn and Sarandon are both great comic actors and, as a team, they're a pleasure to watch. Hawn in particular looks like she's having a whale of a time playing against type. As written by Bob Dolman, who is also making his directorial debut, Suzette is a force of nature and she's allowed to be a rounded character, warts and all, rather than some amusing eccentric. Remarkably, in these moral times, Suzette's never expected to apologise for her lifestyle. Sarandon has the less showy role but she does wonders with it, winning great sympathy as a woman realising how much she's been taken for granted. Not all the juicy parts go to the women. Geoffrey Rush has fun too, playing a character who at times recalls Melvin Udall from As Good As It Gets but has some unique neuroses of his own. His relationship with Suzette is nicely done.

I also liked the way Lavinia's daughters are portrayed. Teenagers dominate American movies at the moment but they never seem like any adolescent I ever met. Hannah and Ginger, played respectively by Erika Christensen from Traffic and newcomer Eva Amurri, come across as real, three-dimensional kids, who are basically well-meaning but also spoiled, ungrateful and capable of throwing screaming tantrums when things don't go their way. It's a shame that their father isn't better developed. We're told he has political ambitions ("The first lady's going to be a Banger Sister", jokes Suzette) and he has a couple of scenes where he disapproves of his wife's friend but there's not much more to him.

I occasionally got the feeling that there were scenes missing, especially in the last half hour. The film's biggest weakness is the glib way it hurries to the finish line, using a big speech to spell out its theme and tie up a lot of loose ends quickly and neatly. There's nothing wrong with a happy ending as long as the film earns it and I believe these characters could live more or less happily ever after but not without a lot more tears and recriminations. It feels as if Dolman suddenly remembered he was making a mainstream film with big stars and decided he'd better give the audience what it wants. It's not a fatal flaw, just a disappointment coming at the end of a film that otherwise defies expectations and proves there's life left in the chick flick.

Overall

7

out of 10

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