In Theaters: The Runaways
Filmmaking is hard by any measure, but who knew anyone could so easily screw up the lurid, outrageous story of the Runaways, the original girl punks with more drama and depravity per pound than half their male contemporaries? If knowing them truly is to love them, then it only makes sense that Floria Sigismondi's tone-deaf, soulless and vapid biopic The Runaways should feel this spiteful -- to its source as well as the viewer.
There's really no point in ramping up the dudgeon for this, unless perhaps you're the underrepresented lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) or Micki Steele or Jackie Fox or another of the band's real bassists subbed out for the fictitious, virtually mute bass player (in a wasted turn by Alia Shawkat) on show here. Everyone got paid, from the actors to the sources, and if I were founding guitarist Joan Jett, played by Kristen Stewart in the film's only wholly inhabited performance, I'd feel like I got more than my money's worth. To the extent that even 15-year-old Dakota Fanning is strung up like fresh meat as lead singer Cherie Currie -- bustiered and stockinged, literally dripping blood from the first frame -- she's very much in on the exploitation. For that cynical transparency alone it's worth the kiss-off.
But again, it's also among the principal wonders of why The Runaways is so dull. After all, if you're going to take real teenage girls and throw them in a real trash-strewn "trailer in the Valley," as their raving guru/manager/producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, belching scenery) calls it, where their raw rehearsals will alchemize into real rock (the girls sang and learned to play their instruments for the film), then the stylized, set-piece artifice of it all is assured to look and feel as dissonant as those primordial Jett riffs sound. Simply rolling film on the mere circumstances Sigismondi has set up to explode and melt everywhere should make the same corrosive art as the band itself. Instead, the music-video veteran and feature-length first-timer runs a kind of 10,000-meter relay of plot points and fabrications, from the girls' expository redoubt behind the Hollywood sign to the avalanche of overnight success that sends them into drugs, booze, sex and other advanced stages of decrepitude.
Sigismondi clearly understands intimacy and dynamics, and in allowing the little moments to be themselves -- Cherie glumly glamming herself up ahead of the school talent show, or she and Jett dutifully hoovering cocaine in an airplane lavatory just prior to landing -- The Runaways functions effectively as a rare, even radical point-counterpoint about the ennui, ambition and expectation of young women. You have to love Stewart snarling at the fat, abrasive club managers who'd sooner rape the band than listen to them (let alone take them seriously). When she later pisses on the headliner's expensive guitar, drunkenly muttering, "I don't give a fuck," it's really as simple as that: The Runaways didn't give a fuck. Apocryphally or not, that lesson is most concentrated -- and most potent -- in these moments. They feel dense and lived in.
The Runaways hastens to give it all back with the twin scourge of rock montages and soft-core porn, as if luxuriating in Fanning's flesh-baring contortions will somehow implicate the generation that let Currie go so far in the first place. Or, alternatively, Sigismondi targets the viewer him/herself: "Are you turned on? Are you entertained? At what cost?" It's as though she doesn't even like her subjects, both challenging their compulsion to break loose and entitling a kind of canonical scorn. Fanning can't even sing with conviction, let alone writhe or validate any of the "jail-fucking-bait" quality Fowley so gleefully espouses upon discovering Currie. If you can't take your eyes off her, it's because you can't help but catalog the horrors -- much the way one did while viewing the execrable Hounddog three years ago. You have to wonder if Dakota Fanning, not yet an adult, is Hollywood's highest-profile public masochist.
Not to be facile about it, either. This is the worst kind of biopic -- lazy, cynical filmmaking attempting to have its utopia and eat it, too, no better a slick, branded product than Transformers or Battleship. It's The Doors without the dead, bloated messiah, Amelia for the pierced, addled Gen-Y set impressionable enough to think a Fanning/Stewart smooch (SPOILER ALERT: It's oversold) and whatever untethered angst orbits it is a reasonable reason to pay $10. When the aromatic dust settles around The Runaways, and Fanning has returned to legitimate character-acting and Stewart has shed the angst so creatively channeled and despairingly squandered here, the historical record will show a Runaways myth featuring this film as it really is: Less than a footnote, less than a mistake, and nothing more than an utter waste.