Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Runaways

Perhaps the reason it’s taken me so long to admit my true feelings for Kristen Stewart is a lingering affection for Panic Room. As soon as that film’s mop-headed tomboy grew up and actually began sexualizing herself, I was rooting for her. I’ve been giving her the benefit of the doubt for years now. After The Runaways, the time has come for me to admit that I just don’t like her.

Retreating into her androgynous shell in an attempt at casual lesbianism, Stewart trades the pained nihilism of a young punk rocker for what just comes off as bored and possibly sleepy. In the course of a decade, she’s been seen awakening the sexualities of Jamie Bell, Adam Brody, Jesse Eisenberg, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner and now Dakota Fanning all by awkwardly futzing with her hair and never looking up from the floor. Whatever her appeal is, I don’t see it and I’m finally ready to write her off.

Stewart and Fanning, both making me nervous in their underwear (and not in the good way), are here being modeled into a girl group by wacko record producer Kim Fowley. Fowley is played in various stages of glam makeup by Michael Shannon, who would be fun to watch if at least there were some scenery for him to chew up, but even when he starts in on his monologues about the girls needing to think with their cocks, the drama is so limp and placid there’s nothing for him to work with.

So Fowley is a record producer who gets the idea from teenager Joan Jett that an all-jailbait punk band would be a sure win. In one of several ridiculous scenes, Joan approaches the famous producer outside a club on the Sunset Strip to tell him she plays guitar and the deal is made five minutes later; Fowley even remarks that producers don’t go around handing record deals to teenagers outside clubs seconds before he hooks the girl up with a drummer and starts making the band. He assembles the five girls based on their image instead of their talent (fitting that Joan spray paints a homemade Sex Pistols t-shirt) and susses out future hit single “Cherry Bomb” to the tune of Joan hitting the same chord over and over again.

Fanning plays Cherie Currie, who stumbles into the position of front-woman after lying about being able to sing. When we’re introduced to her vocal stylings, she’s lip-syncing a David Bowie song at her high school talent show because she can’t manage more than a feeble whisper into the microphone. When she shows up to audition with Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, she’s booed out of the trailer until Fowley gives her the lyrics to “Cherry Bomb” and makes her suddenly an able vocalist (kind of).

From the way the film plays it, I half expected Shannon’s Fowley to turn out to be a drifter posing as a mogul just to rip the girls off. He sets up rehearsal space for them in a dingy trailer surrounded by animal feces and sends them on a club tour in a big station wagon with a boy who introduces himself as “the roadie”.

And in the same way I don’t buy Fowley as a legitimate record producer, I don’t buy The Runaways of The Runaways as a legitimate rock band. They’re presented here as talentless stereotypes – directionless girls who hang out under the Hollywood Sign drinking booze stolen from their parents’ liquor cabinets. Maybe this is what punk rock was supposed to be, but any credibility therein is shot down by the girls’ repeated desires to play huge stadiums and make lots of money.

Writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s lazy style favors montage over scripted scenes in the furthering of the story, resulting in a film ostensibly about the life of a band that recorded five albums but shows them in the studio exactly once. That scene is the one where they break up, of course. The film inadvertently implies that the whole project was a stillborn predecessor to Jett’s later success with “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Bad Reputation,” which get turned up for the end credits.

There are pills that lead to overdose and booze that leads to girl-on-girl make out sessions; there is out-of-focus photography for the drugs and mood lighting for the sex. There are families left behind back home for screaming teenagers outside the club. There’s an argument over Curie’s ‘undeserved’ spotlight as the band’s lead singer – as though none of these girls had ever seen a rock band before (and maybe they hadn’t). This scene particularly recalls the hilarious/heartbreaking Stillwater dissolve in Almost Famous, a dangerous association to draw when your film is little more than a collection of rock ‘n’ roll movie clichés banked on renewing a decades-old scandal of teenaged girls being hot. I’d like to report that this is in some way uniquely or interestingly bad, but like Stewart’s sexless emoting it’s just a lot of boring stuff we’ve been bored by plenty of times in the past.

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