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Making It Past

Going home again: The Banger Sisters and Sweet Home Alabama.


Okay, Memphis. I'm going to make a deal with you. I'm going to save you about $7.50 and roughly two hours of your time by steering you away from The Banger Sisters if you promise to put that money and time toward a ticket or to a rental of a better Chick Flick (see suggested titles below). Promise! A theme of my recent reviews has been the despairing dearth of good roles for women, having seen several grade-A, often Academy Award-winning actresses accepting grade-C roles in high-profile films. The Banger Sisters is a different monster altogether: The roles are great but the movie is so damn lousy that it's impossible to care.

The Premise: Goldie Hawn (in extremely fine comic and touching form) and Susan Sarandon play Suzette and Vinnie, well-known rock-band uber-groupies in the '60s nicknamed "The Banger Sisters" by Frank Zappa for their, ahem, sexual congress with varying Rock Gods and their roadies. It's now 20 years since they've seen each other, and while Suzette is still living large in L.A. as a rock-club bartender, Vinnie (now the more dignified "Lavinia") is the proper wife of a Phoenix lawyer/politico, with two spoiled daughters and a posh lifestyle. When Suzette is fired from her job (seems having Jim Morrison pass out while on top of you doesn't have the clout it used to), she drives to Phoenix to find her old friend. Along the way, she picks up Harry (Geoffrey Rush), a nervous screenwriter on his way to Phoenix for a different kind of reunion: to shoot his father. The two are a proverbial odd couple: Suzette, the promiscuous party girl; Harry, a germophobic nerve-worm. The expected sparks fly between them.

When Suzette finally arrives in Phoenix, she encounters the unforeseeable and shocking reality that Vinnie is now a square. She's an uptight, doting, enabling mother, and she wears beige all the time. Yet another odd couple! It's as if the Vinnie that Suzette knew has amnesia and has been absorbed into a Martha Stewart catalog on Laura Bush's coffee table. Meanwhile, both of Lavinia's daughters are having problems: Hannah (Erika Christensen from Traffic) is drinking and doing drugs, and the younger Ginger (Sarandon's real-life daughter Eva Amurri) fails her driving test and makes weird throat noises. Chaos! The rest of the movie is about the effect Suzette's presence has on the family and how all Vinnie needs is to lighten up, and she will find herself again.

The Diagnosis: This movie is garbage. Well-intentioned garbage. By well-intentioned, I mean that it is a film with two interesting and promising characters for mature, attractive women in their 50s (Hawn is 56, Sarandon is 58, and both look terrific) that allows them to be unapologetically fun and sexy. But casting two great, funny ladies together isn't enough. There's just no script here, and things that are meant to be funny fall flat. Harry's attempt to shoot his father, for instance. Ha ha. And it's two bad movies in one: The Harry subplot is its own film and doesn't complement the story of the two gals. Regardless, aside from having bratty daughters and a stiff husband, we never see why Lavinia's new life as a society matron is SO bad. She seems fine. Not fun but fine, until she snaps. Suzette needs the help, in the form of AA, Sexaholics Anonymous, and whatever support groups exist for Women Who Have Slept With The Lizard King (surely there's at least one). Her message of redemption through smoking pot and having promiscuous sex goes unchecked in the film, and that's a problem. The rest of the movie is a slow montage of Lavinia lightening up and getting "real," concluding with a poorly written high school graduation speech about being "true." It's all very insulting.

The Prescription: For a first-rate Susan Sarandon buddy film, rent Thelma & Louise or, to see her let her hair down, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or White Palace. For truly funny Goldie Hawn, try Protocol or The First Wives Club. You'll get more "bang" for your buck. -- Bo List YOU CAN HAVE ROOTS AND wings, Mel. This is the thesis statement of the funnel cake of a film Sweet Home Alabama. Mel is Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon), who has escaped her small-town Alabama upbringing and stumbled into a storybook fantasy life as an up-and-coming Manhattan fashion designer. Her new line of (unattractive) clothing is the breakout success of the season, and to top it all off, her boyfriend Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), an aspiring politician and the mayor s son, has rented out Tiffany s so he can propose to her and let her pick her own ring (swoon!). There s a hitch: Melanie is still married, technically, to childhood sweetheart Jake (Joshua Lucas), who never signed the divorce papers. After seven years without so much as a visit home, Melanie must go back to Pigeon Creek to finally end her marriage, obligatorily pass by her mom and dad s, and scoot back up to the Big City to marry Mr. Perfect and forget her roots forever. But small-town hilarity ensues. Jake still won t sign the papers. And while, at first, it seems that he just wants to be obstinate about it, we soon come to realize that it s because, lo these seven years, he has been trying to figure out how to get his life together and become something worthy of Melanie and her big dreams. Melanie, incidentally, is culturally shell-shocked. Not only does Pigeon Creek have no ATM machines, there are women in their late 20s who have gasp! babies. This finally unravels Melanie, and in a spirited game of pool with Jake that gets ugly, she drunkenly tells it like it is to Jake and all of her old backward friends. Seems to her that they just don t know there s a whole world out there outside the confines of country music, Moon Pies, and homemade jams. She offends everybody, outs a closeted gay friend (wonderful Ethan Embry), then pukes in Jake s truck. Home, sweet home. Meanwhile, Andrew arrives, unexpectedly, to see what the holdup is and stumbles into everything he s not supposed to see: Civil War reenactments, Melanie s folksy parents, and, worst of all, Jake, whom Melanie has never mentioned. The wedding s off! And then, suddenly it s on! Andrew quickly realizes he s been a jerk and that the best way to atone is a Big Fat Creek Wedding right there in Alabama. Will Jake be that guy at the wedding who says I do when the preacher asks if anybody has any objections? Will Melanie develop an appreciation for her upbringing and small-town values? Who will she choose? These are the pressing questions of Sweet Home Alabama. You have seen this movie before with countless other titles and casts. Usually, it s very clear who the bride-to-be will choose in the end, and I ll give you a hint from this movie s poster slogan: Sometimes what you re looking for is right where you left it. The choice is at least very appealing: rich, political Andrew or Jake, who has that smile and those blue eyes (swoon!). I quote Charlie Brown: What a dilemma! Both actors are great. It s nice to see Patrick (Can t Buy Me Love) Dempsey back in a romantic role, and Josh Lucas is a handsome Matthew McConaughey for the 21st century. The rest of the movie is disarming and fun, if slight. Pigeon Creek is a fantasy small town colorful and warm and full of obviously loving people. I anticipated some offensive redneck humor and stereotypes, but I found it to be relatively tame compared to how shallow and angry it made New Yorkers look especially the mayor played by Candice Bergen. Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place, as Melanie s parents, do a nice job being intelligent rubes with big hearts, and Jean Smart (from TV s Designing Women) has an all-too-small role as Jake s wise mother. Reese Witherspoon is a great comic beauty who does a good balancing act between the comedy of her return to Pigeon Creek and the drama of her big choice. And the film s theme, having roots and wings at the same time, is true and nicely played all the way to the music behind the ending credits. Now, guess which song is played. BL HOW IS A METAPHOR LIKE A GOOD steak? Neither is enjoyable when overdone. If only someone had told that to Mostly Martha s director/screenwriter, Sandra Nettelbeck. If only. The film follows the life of an incredibly anal, ill-tempered head chef, Martha (Martina Gedeck), who works in a small upscale restaurant in a quaint German town. After a tragic car accident, Martha is forced to raise her niece, 8-year-old Lina (Maxime Foerste), who is just as bullheaded as her aunt, complete with demonstrative scowl. Throughout the film, Martha announces Lina s likeness to the girl s father an Italian whose name Martha didn t know until her sister s death but apparently has no qualms about hunting down so Lina will stop all her damn whining. And although the youngster s arrival appears to be the solution to Martha s inability to eat the gourmet meals she cooks alone, Lina forces a stake through her aunt s heart by continually refusing to eat. Things get even more shaken up when Martha returns to the restaurant after her short leave of absence only to find Mario (Sergio Castellitto), an eccentric but wonderfully charming Italian chef, blasting Sinatra and running the show. Not only is he in charge, his fellow employees actually like him, which poses great danger to Martha s job security, since she is clearly a raging bitch to everyone within a 100-foot radius of the kitchen. So here we have Martha, whose sexual frustration is practically audible when she starts making googly eyes at Mario halfway through the movie, and Lina, who desperately pines to be with her estranged Italian father, and Mario, the fun-loving Italian who happens to be the only person at whom Lina will crack a toothy grin. The ending to this simple, romantic comedy is predictable. Where the film really falls to pieces is its heavy-handed approach to the well-trodden food-as-life idea: Martha as a lobster eating itself in a tank, Martha as a tough gnocchi that must be cooked by an experienced chef, Martha raising Lina as if trying to make a dish without a recipe, and so on. It s the same old ploy that s been around as long as, well, movies about food. I think what really made me mad, though, was that this movie couldn t even deliver on the simplest task of a food movie: It didn t make me hungry. But maybe it just wasn t to my taste. ALISON STOHR

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