'Factory Girl' Gives Subject A 15-Minute Treatment

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

As the latest round of celebrity wannabes buzzes through the tryout halls of "American Idol," the zeitgeist seems primed for the release of "Factory Girl."

After all, the movie revisits the life of Edie Sedgwick, a 1960s trust-fund princess and socialite, whose only qualifications for fame were her luminous beauty, some art-school experience and relentless desire. In her ultimately tragic quest to become one of Andy Warhol's starlets, she is something of a spiritual ancestor to all those equally desperate hopefuls clamoring for three minutes with Simon, Randy and Paula.

Unfortunately the movie, directed by George Hickenlooper, believes that casting Sienna Miller as Sedgwick -- one "it" girl playing another -- is postmodern perspective enough. Yet a pretty face, a Warhol fright wig and a couple of dizzying drug montages are not enough to evoke a whole era.

"Factory Girl" follows Sedgwick from New England art school to New York, where she joins the Factory, the Manhattan aerie where artist and den mother Warhol (Guy Pearce) bestows ersatz fame on anyone who wins his blessing.

In short order -- and for a heartbreakingly short time -- Sedgwick becomes the chief firmament in Warhol's universe. But their platonic romance of sorts goes awry, thanks to her drug use and to her sudden infatuation with a musician, played by Hayden Christensen. (This is based on her real-life relationship with Bob Dylan, who reportedly threatened legal action for the fictionalized portrayal in which the character spouts pretentious platitudes, makes an obnoxious boor of himself at the Factory, takes Edie for a ride on the back of his bike and, to show his cool contempt for materialism, sends the hog hurtling off a pier.)

In the movie's elusive moral code, we are to accept this un-Dylan as Edie's spiritual conscience. ("You're as empty as your friend's soup can.") But given his fictionalized status, we find ourselves preoccupied, wondering about the real story. And a sex scene between the actors is not only one of the most cliched, abstract-landscape-of-the-body encounters in recent memory, it gives us zero insight into their relationship.

"Factory Girl" isn't a penetrating chronicle of Sedgwick's life so much as a production designer's highlights reel. Miller, a former model perhaps best known for her short engagement to Jude Law, turns in a dutiful performance in a poorly drawn role. Her turn amounts to a runway spectacle, as we watch her in an array of berets, hats, skirts, leopard-print underwear and far less. The portrayal of Sedgwick's descent into drug oblivion feels similarly flip and shorthand, and she even looks glamorous -- like a figure from Picasso's blue period -- huddling in the throes of addiction. All of this could have been achieved just as well by a spread in Vanity Fair.

As Mr. Tomato Soup Can himself, Pearce makes a quirkily fascinating figure, whose stuttery "hmms" and "ohs" are subterfuge for lethal passive-aggression. But thanks, again, to a screenplay that keeps things frustratingly on the surface, he's never allowed to reveal much more. Given the ethos of Warhol's art -- which could be described as a knowingly superficial awareness of fame and commercialism -- the movie's lack of depth makes for unintended irony.

As if to make up for the story's lack of heft, the movie weaves in faux-documentary scenes in which an older Sedgwick (just before her drug overdose in 1971 at the age of 28) speaks to an off-camera filmmaker about her life. Then, tacked on at the movie's end, some who knew Sedgwick, including George Plimpton, Gerard Malanga and Nat Finkelstein, offer their thumbnail impressions. It's a distracting ploy, and it prompts the viewer to reflect on what's missing: a satisfying drama that takes us to another time and offers illumination about our own time and humanity.

Factory Girl (91 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for drug use, nudity, profanity and sexual scenes.

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