Starring Elisabeth Moss as a riot-grrrl rock-diva who, when we first meet her, seems to be well on her way to drinking and drama-queening herself to death, the movie “Her Smell” is a fierce and intoxicating performance sloshing around in a half-empty Solo cup of a movie. Set mostly in the 1990s, and centering on Moss’s Becky Something — the pseudonymous lead singer of a punky all-woman rock trio named Something She — the movie by writer-director Alex Ross Perry (“Listen Up Philip”) invites us to observe the degradation and redemption of an artist close up, without first giving us a reason to care. (Never mind that it also fails to convince us, until it’s way too late, that the main character actually is an artist.)
Becky abuses her bandmates and her ex (Dan Stevens). She’s an irresponsible, substance-abusing caregiver to their baby daughter. And, most important, her lack of talent doesn’t really justify the movie’s willingness to let her bad behavior slide.
Mostly, this is a problem of storytelling, not acting. Moss is riveting, even if the material is not.
“Her Smell” opens with an ending, so to speak, as Becky and her band take the stage to knock out a version of “Another Girl Another Planet” by the Only Ones, delivered as an encore to a performance in some scruffy little rock joint. It’s a decent enough rendition of a cool song. But listening to this snippet of someone else’s music doesn’t compensate for what follows: five overlong, overly talky “acts” in which we’re meant to accept — without evidence — the greatness of what seems to be, for all intents and purposes, a mediocre cover band.
One of the five segments features a recording-studio encounter between Becky and the members of an up-and-coming young band whose musicians idolize her as some kind of rock deity. That band’s lead singer, played by Cara Delevingne, even sports a “Something She” T-shirt. But it’s already clear, from the movie’s first scenes, that Becky’s best days are far behind her. Why anyone would continue to idolize her is, for the longest time, a mystery the film doesn’t bother to explain.
Eventually, that question is answered, when, more than 90 minutes into the movie, a washed-up and now-sober Becky is shown serenading her daughter with a heartfelt — and deeply, movingly personal — song. But by opening at rock bottom, instead of the heights, Perry makes it difficult to care about Becky’s fall from, and slow crawl back to, grace. Most of that fall takes place before the movie even starts.
The other problem is the long-winded, sometimes pretentious script. Endless arguments about rock purity and energy take place between Becky and the owner of her record label (Eric Stoltz); her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin); a rival musician (Amber Heard); Becky’s personal shaman (Eka Darville); and her own mother (Virginia Madsen). It’s so tedious that you may find yourself, at long last, agreeing with Becky when she finally gets sick enough of her own voice to announce, without irony: “Enough of this jibber-jabber. Let’s rock.”
R. At the AFI Silver. Contains crude language throughout and some drug use. 135 minutes.