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George Hickenlooper makes both fiction films and documentaries, but he’s probably better known for the latter, which include Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse and Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Having tracked Francis Ford Coppola through the jungle of making Apocalypse Now and Rodney Bingenheimer into his postpunk decline, Hickenlooper must have thought himself qualified to handle two more elusive pop-culture characters, Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. But his Factory Girl—which would be more accurately titled Edie ’n’ Andy—gets just about everything wrong, including the look, the facts, and the characterization.
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Shot in a harsh, oversaturated color that’s apparently meant to yell “pop art!,” Factory Girl covers a few years in the life of Sedgwick, the beautiful, troubled offspring of a rich, troubled family. Edie (Sienna Miller) arrives in New York in 1965 and is introduced to Warhol by her friend Chuck (Jimmy Fallon). She becomes one of the artist’s “superstars,” a designation that everyone except pseudonymous scripter Captain Mauzner realizes is ironic. Edie develops a taste for the Factory’s drug of choice, methamphetamine, and fries nearly to a crisp. She ends up in rehab in California, where her psychiatric sessions function as commentary on her misspent youth. In 1971, as everyone who cares about her biography already knows, she died of a drug overdose at 28.
Although the movie is about a girl, and the blank Miller makes a suitably blank Edie, the real focus is on Warhol, who’s held to blame for his superstar’s decline. As Warhol, Guy Pearce emphasizes the vampiric side of the artist’s nickname, Drella (Dracula + Cinderella). Pasty white and blotchy, Pearce’s Andy subsists on fresh young flesh, draining its essence to make “empty” art. (Never mind that such Warhol intimates as Ondine, Brigid Polk, and Lou Reed—all pictured briefly in the film—had strong personalities and survived their associations with the art-world ghoul.)
As if the movie’s opinion of Warhol weren’t obvious, it’s articulated by a man presented as his philosophical nemesis and identified in the credits simply as “the musician.” The other name that could have been given this character is Bob Dylan (impersonated badly by Hayden Christensen), but Dylan’s lawyers intervened. While Hickenlooper’s Warhol deals in irony and indirection, his Dylan is a truth-teller. The musician takes Edie for a ride on his motorcycle, denounces speed as “faggy,” and calls Warhol a “bloodsucker.” (But we already knew that from Pearce’s makeup.) Edie and not-Dylan become lovers, but then the musician marries someone else, leaving the heartless Edie heartbroken.
What’s the supposed difference between Warhol and Dylan? Well, the conniving artist was manipulative, could be mean, and had an entourage, while the forthright musician was manipulative, could be mean, and had an entourage. (In fact, pop history records that Edie had an affair with a Dylan factotum, Bobby Neuwirth, not with the great man himself.) The film’s characterization of Warhol—which omits the physical and psychic fallout of his 1968 shooting—is flatter than a silk-screened soup can. If defensible at all, it’s closer to his ’80s self than his ’60s one.
Warhol and his scene have been simulated frequently in movies made since his death in 1987, from The Doors and Basquiat to, of course, I Shot Andy Warhol. Factory Girl does a particularly unconvincing job, in part because Dylan and the Velvet Underground didn’t license their music. (In their place are Tim Hardin, the Count Five, and “I Want Candy,” also heard in another recent poor-little-rich-girl flick, Marie Antoinette.) Other missteps include Warhol “screen tests”—live-action portraits, basically—in which the subjects speak, something they never did, and simulations of Warhol films that miss both the style and attitude of the originals. Factory Girl has been substantially re-shot and re-cut since its disastrous early test screenings, but a movie this fundamentally misbegotten can’t be tinkered into shape. For all its loudness of color, action, and mood, the film can’t even compete with the vision of ’60s subcultural Manhattan glamour that already exists—in the work of its villain, Andy Warhol.