Granted, Chewbacca is a memorable movie character, but would Star Wars have become such a huge smash had the bellowing Wookiee been the protagonist rather than Luke Skywalker? And who doesn't love the character of Peter Clemenza in The Godfather ("Leave the gun; take the cannoli"), but would we have rather spent the majority of the picture's running time following him instead of the Corleones?
These are extreme examples, to be sure, but they nevertheless followed the train of thought that stuck with me throughout The Runaways, a look at the formation of the influential all-girl rock band from the latter half of the 1970s. In other words, the picture needs a lot more Joan Jett, a lot less Cherie Currie.
Always entertaining but never as penetrating as one would hope, The Runaways tinkers with historical accuracy (but not to a distracting degree) to show how five teenage girls, including Jett (played by Twilight's Kristen Stewart) and Currie (former screen moppet Dakota Fanning, suddenly 16), came together in the sun-soaked California of 1975 to create a band that would remain together for only a few years yet forge a path that would lead the way for other female musicians over the ensuing decades.
The material available for a radical screen biopic is eye-popping -- here's a band that rubbed shoulders with the likes of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, for God's sake -- yet writer-director Floria Sigismondi, best known for helming scores of music videos (David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Sheryl Crow, etc.), keeps her focus small, preferring to present the story as a commonplace rise-and-fall odyssey.
Even this approach would have worked had the spotlight been squarely on Jett, but instead it's Currie who receives the closest thing to a career trajectory. This makes sense considering that Sigismondi based her script on a book written by Currie (Neon Angel), but she should have chosen better source material: It's unfortunate (and probably a tad insulting) that instead of centering on the brainy woman who went on to become a trailblazer and rock icon in her own right, the picture
chooses instead to follow the sexpot who fails rather than succeeds, predictably undone by the usual combo of drugs, exhaustion and incompatibility.
Jett presumably has no problem with the film -- she's listed as an executive producer -- but there's a better movie to be made than this one. The Runaways isn't bad -- it's got spirit and spunk -- but it fails to really punch across this vital period in rock history.
Stewart and Fanning are both fine in their respective roles, although it's with no small measure of irony that the film's best acting comes from the only male among the principal cast. As Kim Fowley, the oddball music maven who brings the band together, Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon delivers a suitably prickly performance that taps into the character's eccentric side while also showcasing his business acumen. A fascinating figure in real life, he's seen here as the sort of man who could sell a T-bone steak to a vegan, and he drives the point home to the girls that the band "isn't about women's lib; it's about women's libido!" But Fowley quickly turns into a reptilian micromanager, and Shannon doesn't shy away from exposing his sordidness or infuriating unpredictability. It's a captivating turn, and it best punches across the messy sense of anarchy that the rest of the picture desperately needs.
THE LAST SONG
Steve McQueen, Sally Field and George Clooney are among the many actors who successfully transitioned from the small screen to the large one (and don't forget that fellow named Clint), but Miley Cyrus seems more likely to join the ranks of Kirk Cameron, Tony Danza and the Olsen twins, thespians who attempted to make the leap but fell short by about 10 miles. In this adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel, the Disney Channel product stars as Ronnie, a brooding teen who's none too thrilled that she's forced to spend the summer with her father (Greg Kinnear) at his beachside home (filming took place in Savannah and Tybee Island). Still angry at him for divorcing her mom (the ageless Kelly Preston), she shows her disapproval by turning down acceptance at Julliard, refusing to eat dinner with him, and perpetually pouting whenever she's in his presence (that'll teach him!). Initially, Cyrus' character is supposed to be this anti-establishment rebel, but the actress suggests "punk" about as much as Wubbzy. At any rate, she eventually mellows out after meeting local hottie Will (Liam Hemsworth), a jock from a rich family. From here, the film slogs its way through the usual hoary conventions, including Will's snotty circle objecting to Ronnie's lack of wealth and prestige and the sudden terminal disease sprung on one of the principal players. Cyrus isn't quite ready for her big-screen close-up, as evidenced by her clumsy pauses (as if she expects canned sit-com reactions after her every utterance) as well as her exaggerated enunciation that's more suited to the boob tube. But let's not be too rough on the child: It's hard to put one's best foot forward when dealing with a script that's the literary equivalent of cement shoes.