Friday, March 23, 2007

Review - Factory Girl

Edie Sedgwick arrive in New York in the mid-1960’s with a head full of dreams and her rich family’s money behind her. For a few years this spiky young gamine was America’s “it” girl, captivating high society with her stunning looks and distinctive style. She soon became Andy Warhol’s muse and confidant, hanging out with his factory crowd and appearing in a number of his films as their fame grew in tandem; and she then romanced Bob Dylan, who wrote songs in her honour. Edie’s star burned brightly, but briefly; she had everything, and then nothing. In 1971 Edie Sedgwick died from a drug overdose at the age of 28.

This is undeniably a very sad tale, but is it a movie? We’ve surely seen stories like this told a million times before in various incarnations, and Factory Girl is just more of the same; another riches-to-rags story in we watch this beautiful woman slip further into degradation until she finally brings an end to her painful life. The only point of interest this movie may have is that it purports to tell the story of a famous socialite and, by extension, that it might reveal something about two of the era’s most iconic figures, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. But Factory Girl is a garbled mess which is too silly and unsure of itself to reveal anything of significance.
Factory Girl’s director George Hickenlooper has a background in documentaries - in fact, he was a co-director on the wonderful Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse - but he shows no documentary-style rigour in his handling of this story, preferring instead to present Edie Sedgwick in the most hackneyed way possible. He opts for a standard biopic structure, with Edie (Sienna Miller) recounting her experiences to a Cottage Hospital counsellor, reminiscences which provide Factory Girl with its narration. After a brief flashback to a Cambridge art college Edie goes to stay with her friend Chuck Wein (a miscast and clueless Jimmy Fallon) in New York, and her fate is sealed when she catches the eye of Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce) at a typically swinging party. How does Hickenlooper depict this fateful meeting? By having Warhol spot Sedgwick dancing in slow motion across the room. When she pulls out a cigarette, six men thrust lighters in her direction. The clichés just keep on coming.

While Hickenlooper bores us rigid with one lazy montage after another, the two actors at the heart of Factory Girl work hard to make us care about the story being told. For Miller, this is the perfect role at the perfect time; she too has achieved celebrity status by virtue of her good looks, fashion sense and association with others, and she seems perfectly comfortable in Edie Sedgwick’s skin. Miller attacks the role with gusto, capturing Edie’s voice and mannerisms, and under certain conditions she bears a striking resemblance to the film’s subject. Pearce looks the part too, with his pale blotchy skin and shock of white hair, and he plays Warhol as a cunning, arch manipulator; almost vampiric in the way he sucks Sedgwick dry and then brutally severs their friendship as soon as he feels he has no further use for her.

Both actors score highly for their impersonations, but they lack the depth and direction required to blossom into real living, breathing performances. They’re great recreations, but they have no inner voice. Miller pours plenty of emotion into the part as the naïve Sedgwick is used and abused by all around her, but it becomes increasingly hard to care about her plight because Hickenlooper and his team of screenwriters have failed to flesh out the character with the rote nature of their scripting. Pearce’s Warhol is initially intriguing, but the film never really tries to explores the artist’s character beyond the pathetically trite pop-psychology theories which litter the picture.

And then there’s Bob Dylan - or rather, there isn’t. Hayden Christensen first appears on screen walking offstage with a guitar in his hands and a harmonica around his neck, but according to Factory Girl’s credits this character is known only as “The Musician”, although he is referred to in the film as Billy Quinn. The motive behind this strange ersatz character was the threat of legal action from Dylan after he took a dislike to the film’s portrayal of his relationship with Edie, but the picture doesn’t actually reflect too badly on the singer. According to Factory Girl Dylan recognised Warhol’s manipulation of Sedgwick and tried to make her see the light, and when she later fell on hard times - long after their relationship had ended - he can be seen sending one of his aides to see if she needs any help.

On the other hand perhaps Dylan decided to sue the makers of Factory Girl when he heard that Hayden Christensen had been cast as him, which would of course be a perfectly valid reason for litigation. Christensen is hopelessly out of his depth in a part which should carry serious weight; his ill-fated attempts to play Dylan leave him looking and sounding like he’s half-asleep. There’s little heat between him and Miller, something which is never clearer than during the excruciating soft-focus sex sequence which sees the two actors bumping and grinding in front of a roaring fireplace. The whole Dylan/Billy Quinn farrago only serves to undermine Factory Girl’s credibility even further, but the longer this film continues the more one respects Bob Dylan for disassociating himself from it.

The stories of Factory Girl’s troubled production have already been well publicised. Not only have the filmmakers had to contend with the threat of legal action, but there have been many rushed re-shoots and restructurings ordered by the Weinsteins; so perhaps after all that it comes as no surprise to find a finished product which is such a witless and confused mongrel of a film. It looks cheap, it feels stale, it has nothing to say about the characters who inhabit its story, and it has nothing to show us except yet another story of someone who lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse behind. Christensen’s Not Dylan tells Sedgwick at one point that her heart is as empty as one of her friend’s soup cans; and if he had been referring to George Hickenlooper’s film itself, then he might have offered Factory Girl’s single moment of insight.