Guy Pearce’s portrayal of Andy Warhol in George Hickenlooper’s strangely formless Factory Girl is, first of all, utterly creepy: wandering through the film in blotchy make-up and sunglasses, he’s like a hideous melange of Powder and Satan. Perhaps this is intentional. He is also, however, an incredible leech, virtually sucking the life out of the title character and, it seems, everyone else who comes into contact with him; he’s like a vortex of empty Bohemian celebrity.
Perhaps that is intentional as well. But there’s such a complete lack of evident allure around this version of Andy Warhol that the tragedy of Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), who got caught in his net and never escaped, doesn’t materialize. Warhol is so repulsive from the beginning that no amount of voiceover (not quite from beyond the grave, but close) or playing the abusive-background card can make her plight sympathetic. Sorry, Edie, but to quote Radiohead, “you do this to yourself.”
That’s harsh, but the movie does it to itself as well: allegedly reworked by Harvey Weinstein after Hickenlooper’s first cut didn’t cut the mustard, Factory Girl plays like it was dragged kicking and screaming into a traditional biopic structure. Sedgwick’s story is told chronologically via flashback, and we see her, now a few years older, telling it to someone — perhaps a therapist. Given that her eventual premature death from a drug overdose is generally known, this is a weird feint — the film doesn’t seem prepared for its own ending. The framing device is all the more misguided for the fact is that its sole function is to create sympathy and perspective, which simply doesn’t work.
Hickenlooper attempts to address Sedgwick’s alleged love affair with Bob Dylan, though when Dylan — who denies any romantic involvement with the embattled waif — threatened suit to keep Factory Girl from being released, the filmmakers took out his name: his character, played by Hayden Christensen, is listed in the credits as “Musician” and is occasionally referred to as “Billy.” Christensen is kind of a disaster, relying on vacant charisma to get him through his scenes; the performance is wrong for Dylan, but also extremely bizarre — his line readings are so strange that at points I wondered if he didn’t start borrowing pages from Christopher Walken’s playbook.
The film contrasts Dylan’s supposed purity and the honesty of his music — which we never hear — with the hollow, destructive fame that Warhol is offering. The latter’s stabs at avant-garde cinema that make Sedgwick into a quasi-celebrity are portrayed as insufferable, ultra-pretentious larks; we gather his paintings are popular, but the movie seems to be condemning even them. Hickenlooper drives home the point with a long and artful sex scene between Sedgwick and Dylan — that sort of passion being something Warhol presumably can never offer.
Factory Girl does wring some sadness out of this miserable scenario in the abstract. It makes the entire Warhol phenomenon seem rather sad, for one — something with which I’m inclined to agree. It comments mournfully on a state of affairs where pop culture is more valuable and wholesome than ostensibly high-brow pop culture criticism. And on some level of generality, the whole thing’s a damn shame — Edie sure was pretty, and seemed like a nice girl. But emotionally, it doesn’t catch. Factory Girl is brought down by a series of tragic miscalculations.