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Movie review, 'The Banger Sisters'

Late in "The Banger Sisters," Lavinia, the uptight, reformed ex-groupie played by Susan Sarandon, tells Suzette, the carefree, not-so-reformed ex-groupie played by Goldie Hawn, "You're a force."

The line is so dead-on that it's superfluous. Suzette is one of those big, blustery roles that work-starved actresses in the post-40 crowd dream about, and Hawn tears into it with the gusto of Pete Sampras reclaiming his U.S. Open crown.

Defying the aging process has become the overriding theme of the 56-year-old star's recent career (and public image), and in Suzette she has found the perfect down-and-dirty offshoot of her persona. Watching her -- as well as Sarandon's more reined-in work -- is a gas.

Suzette, too, is fighting the notion that time is passing her by. Bartending at West Hollywood's Whisky a Go-Go in a tight black tank top that shows off her surgically enhanced breasts, she still regales customers with memories of Jim Morrison and ogles the grimy singers who take the club's stage.

But today's rock stars, she learns, prefer the attentions of younger women, and the club's business-minded owner doesn't value Suzette's value as a "character" enough to tolerate her drinking on the job. So Suzette finds herself broke, unemployed and on the road to Phoenix to beg money from her estranged friend Lavinia, now a wealthy suburban homemaker.

On paper Suzette sounds pathetic, like the worst-case scenario of how Hawn daughter Kate Hudson's "Almost Famous" groupie character might have turned out. But with Hawn filling Suzette's ragged threads -- and first-time writer-director Bob Dolman pulling his punches -- she's indomitable, exuding a boozy sexual energy that turns at least some men into moths circling her flame.

At one point Harry (Geoffrey Rush), the fussy, repressed writer whom she picks up on the road, is griping to her in his hotel room, and she shuts him up with an indignant slap of her legs onto his desk. It's a memorably formidable power move.

Sarandon is no slouch either, though Lavinia's tightly coiled demeanor gives her less room to maneuver. Married to a stereotypically bland and rich lawyer, Raymond (Robin Thomas), and trying to set a good example for her two spoiled daughters, Hannah (Erika Christensen, who shouldn't be blamed for "Swimfan") and Ginger (Sarandon's daughter Eva Amurri, who shares her mother's wide eyes), Lavinia initially recoils from her flamboyant old friend.

Why did these two inseparable pals and fellow groupies become estranged 20 years earlier? How did they spend the '70s? Dolman doesn't bother to tell us; I suppose we're expected to assume that Lavinia simply opted for respectability while Suzette stuck with the hard life, but you have no clue why Lavinia would fall for such a stiff as Raymond, who seems to have completely missed the rock 'n' roll era.

Ah, well, you're willing to forgive a lot when pros such as Sarandon and Hawn are lighting up the screen with their buttoned-down/unbuttoned interplay. Dolman feeds them plenty of good lines, such as Lavinia's lament about her beige suit ("I'm the same color as the Department of Motor Vehicles!") and an inside joke in which Suzette recalls that Lavinia used to be the one famous for her breasts.

Sarandon need not even say a word in her best scene; you just watch her eyes as they register embarrassment, humiliation and then anger as her kids and husband ridicule the notion that she ever was anything but a control freak.

Dolman gives "The Banger Sisters" a familiar structure: Suzette teaches Lavinia to lighten up and to accept her sordid past; Suzette learns a few lessons about the value of family, too; and these two vibrant women can help the verging-on-cartoonish Harry not to act like he just sat on a pencil sharpener.

It's all pretty pat, particularly the ending. For a while you might think you're watching a rock 'n' roll "Thelma and Louise," especially as Suzette empowers herself through R-rated sexual aggression and the duo peruses some Cynthia Plastercaster-inspired Polaroids taken back in their groupie days. (Is that really you, Jimmy Page?)

But the movie ultimately goes the safe route, even as it emphasizes that the suburbanite has a lot more to learn from the free spirit than the other way around. There's a brutal reality at the core of a hard-living character like Suzette that Dolman opts to ignore.

Also, for a movie rooted in the contrast between late-'60s hedonism and idealism and today's corporate, overcommercialized culture, the '60s flavor is awfully faint, with an overload of Doors references and a soundtrack that's all over the place. What do Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" and Tommy Lee's cover of David Bowie's "Fame" have to do with either era?

"The Banger Sisters" should feel more lived-in than it does, but, hey, let's not get too uptight. The movie's still a lot of fun, with an undeniable energy sparked by two actresses in their 50s working at the peak of their powers. Juicy roles for older women? Let the revolution begin.

3 stars (out of 4)
"The Banger Sisters" Written and directed by Bob Dolman; photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by Aram Nigoghossian; production designed by Maia Javan; music by Trevor Rabin; produced by Mark Johnson, Elizabeth Cantillon. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 20. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (language, sexual content, some drug use).

Suzette -- Goldie Hawn
Lavinia -- Susan Sarandon
Harry -- Geoffrey Rush
Hannah -- Erika Christensen
Raymond -- Robin Thomas
Ginger -- Eva Amurri

Mark Caro is a Tribune movie writer.

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