Take the worst successful bar band you can think of (it was Nickleback, don’t lie). Downgrade their talent about halfway. Now imagine the sheer amount of bands that fulfill that criteria, currently on the road shuffling from bar to bar, hoping to get lucky and have that one moment where the public puts down that one brand of shitty vanilla and samples them instead. Barely alive from a somewhat negligible record company relationship, their van heads from motel to motel, barely scraping by as the bandmates drown their free time in a sea of cheap booze and disinterested groupies.
In “Janie Jones,” this is the Ethan Brand Experience. Not particularly interested in camaraderie or art, they’re just trying to finish an ill-fated road trip, just as the record company lingers over their contract with a pair of scissors. Frontman Brand (Alessandro Nivola) is a hunky Adam Levine-type, but he seems more interested in downing a bottle and sleeping with his entitled, bratty groupie girlfriend Iris (Brittany Snow) than he does with his band reaching whatever could be considered a “next level.” This is not your future Nickelback (hooray?). Brand’s apathetic lifestyle is thrown for a loop when Janie Jones (Abigail Breslin) appears in his tour bus. This plucky teenager brazenly announces she’s her father, and when he refuses to acknowledge that he may have seduced a fan a few years ago and fled, she understandably panics. Mom (Elisabeth Shue) needs treatment, and so she departs, leaving Janie stranded with these rock star burnouts of (incongruously) varying age.
Sensitive but perceptive, Janie feels that she’s going to have to make this work with her estranged father, even if he is in denial. Only problem is, her attempts at ingratiating herself into his life cause friction with Brand’s ill-tempered collaborators. Once Iris begins to stray within the band’s ranks, an on-stage blowup means that The Ethan Brand Experience has just become a bit more intimate. Without a band, and with only a teenage girl and a stressed manager by his side (Peter Stormare, playing human for once), Brand decides to finish the tour, even if no one particularly cares for a limited rock-star-turned-acoustic-troubadour. Oh, but it turns out, Janie can play the guitar.
It takes less time watching “Janie Jones” than it took for you to read this review to guess where the story is headed. How depressing that the production team behind “Janie Jones” would use the loaded baggage of the films’ title (a song by The Clash) to make the rock 'n' roll movie your mother would enjoy. Not a single moment of the film isn’t telegraphed five minutes ahead. Want to feel smart? “Janie Jones” is the perfect way to flatter audiences who aren’t much up to speed on what’s going on. Your friend who asks you, “Wait, who is he? What is he doing? Which one is the bad guy again?” and so on will be catered to in a most glorious fashion.
Nivola, never an entirely charismatic performer, perfectly encapsulates that soulless rock star ego, nursing hangovers through dark shades and corporate-friendly attitude. When he’s got to open up to his daughter you find it hard to cheer for him, as his change of heart isn’t entirely convincing. Hollywood feels full of guys like Nivola, devastatingly handsome but not entirely worth rooting for. In another era, he would be a William Zabka upgrade. In ours, someone takes a chance on making him a leading man every few years. It hasn’t caught on. At least Breslin, who has grown into an actress of significant nuance, is strong enough to carry the weight. The narrative covers quite a bit of time, but, more importantly, it captures the growth of a girl from a wide-eyed child to a more hardened teen. Breslin doesn’t milk her moments with Nivola for sentimentality, and their relationship resolves itself as something that’s going to keep growing and changing. With her eyes, the sideways glances, and the reluctant smiles, she reminds the audience that she’s been burned so many times that she’ll never truly be able to trust him.
The world of “Janie Jones” at least feels intimate and real, with tour buses strewn with garbage, the saddest Happy Hour bar deals you can imagine, and motels that would be honored to have cockroaches as guests. In Stormare’s manager, there is a conduit between the glamour and the reality of drunken road trips on a record company’s dime. Stomare’s character wears a slick leather jacket at points, one that looks both extremely expensive and extravagant, but also clearly worn out. We don’t know the backstory, because we don’t have to, though it’s clear this was a purchase made during a more promising time. Now, if only we could know that story instead. [C-]