When Harvard Med grad Sam (Christian Bale, "Reign of Fire") gets an internship in L.A., he brings his fiancee Alex (Kate Beckinsale, "Pearl Harbor") along to work on her PhD dissertation in his bohemian mom Jane's empty home. Sam, who is already tense about flying into his mother's airspace, gets more tightly wound when he discovers Jane is producing a record for her two-decades younger British lover Ian's (Alessandro Nivola, "Jurassic Park III") band at home base in "Laurel Canyon."
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko, who looked at a community of drug and alcohol-addled artists in New York and their effect on a naive neighbor moves to the West Coast to take a look at a bunch of pot-smoking, boozing artists and their effect on a naive visitor. Cholodenko's second film is slicker but less satisfying than her first, but features another Oscar calibre performance from Frances McDormand, who has simply never been better than she is here.
Cholodenko, cinematographer Wally Pfister ("Insomnia") and editor Amy Duddleston ("High Art") firmly establish a sense of place as Sam and Alex drive through the twisting roads of Laurel Canyon on approach to mom's home/recording studio. Modern yet established homes nestle within hiding spots of lush foliage, hip, laid-back lairs of the unostentatiously wealthy, artistic crowd. Stiff Sam (Bale sports a matted down hairstyle to accentuate his inner nerd) and reserved Alex find Jane in the midst of her musicians and a haze of pot smoke. Alex is obviously intrigued, fueling Sam's inclination to bolt.
When Sam leaves for work, Alex writes about the sex lives of fruit flies but the good-natured decadence surrounding her cocoon begins to seep in and Alex begins to sneak out, noting the pictures of Jane with decades of rock gods, enjoying her future mother-in-law's conversation, intrigued by Ian's charming flirtations. She lies to Sam about apartment hunting while he lies about time spent with Israeli intern Sara (Natascha McElhone), a seductress with more lethal intent than Jane's emotionally loyal Ian.
This Oedipally twisted quadrangle, charted by the passing of an AC/DC tee shirt, is mostly meaningless because we're never invested in Sam and Alex as a couple, but McDormand and, to a lesser degree, Nivola make us care. The older woman/younger man pairing have chemistry to burn (beautifully contrasted in dual love scenes with a frustrated Sam and Alex set to Roxy Music's "It's Only Love"), but furthermore, we care about Jane's relationship with her son because McDormand makes us care so much about Jane. She may be hedonistic, but she's certainly not developmentally disabled, as her son claims she is - he's projecting his own fears after an upbringing exposed to the lost souls his mother and her vocation attracted. McDormand, so comfortable in her own skin here, lets myriad emotions play over her striking face without ever losing her strength of character. She's also hilarious in a series of telephone conversations with Claudia (Melissa de Sousa), a label exec. Bale becomes increasingly more tightly wound, softened traces of "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman in his accent, yet the writing and character never convincingly articulate Sam's rage. Beckinsale is fine as a bookworm repressed only by accident of prior environs. Nivola, an underutilized actor, is terrifically engaging if more less finely drawn than Jane. He also convinces as a rock star, doing his own singing in the terrific recording studio scenes.
"Laurel Canyon" presents a charmed lifestyle made messy by the interruption of the more traditionally earth bound and Frances McDormand is its heart and soul.
Sam (Christian Bale) has graduated Harvard Medical School and has taken on a psychiatric internship in LA. His fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale), a qualified MD, is working on her PhD dissertation on the sexual reproduction of the fruit fly and joins Sam as they plan to save money and move into his record producer mom's unused beach home. But, when they arrive at her studio/home they find out that she gave the shore side property to her former lover in "Laurel Canyon."
The young couple has two choices after digging up their roots to make a life 3000 miles away: find a place of their own or stay with Jane as she struggles to get a record produced for her client Ian (Alessandro Nivola). Sam, completely uptight with the idea of living with the mother from whom he has been estranged for years, tries to juggle his psychiatric internship, finding an apartment and commuting the distance to the hospital. Alex, who stays at home working on her doctoral paper, begins to get drawn to the music and comradeship of Jane's recording studio sessions with Ian and his band. Soon, Alex is hanging out, smoking pot and, after Jane asks her to, expounding on why the song they are working on does not have "It." When Sam asks his girlfriend to take on the apartment-hunting chore, she reluctantly agrees, but her heart is not in it.
Meanwhile, Sam, literally, almost has a run-in with a second-year intern at the hospital, Israeli-born Sara (Natascha McElhone). In order to give Alex the mobility to look at apartments, Sam accepts Sara's offer to take him to and from the hospital. A bond and attraction grows between Sam and Sara just as one is forming with Alex, Jane and Ian. At this point, it seems obvious that there will be some awakenings and changes in the hearts and minds of Sam and Alex but director/scripter Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art") leaves it on a level of slightly confused ambiguity for the central figures.
"Laurel Canyon" belongs to Frances McDormand as the free-spirited Jane. This represent a 180 degree turnabout from her wonderful performance in "Almost Famous" where she played an overly protective, straight laced professor-mom who worries over her 15-year old son's involvement as a rock journalist. Her she is the kind of behind-the-scenes character that the teen would be writing about. 45-year old McDormand makes Jane extremely sexy and mature but someone who is not tied down by the restrictions and mores that regular folk live by. She sees nothing wrong with drinking champagne and smoking pot if it doesn't effect your work and Jane is a very successful record producer. The character does not change all that much from beginning to end but this would be consistent with the focus that she has developed over the years.
Christian Bale, as uptight, buttoned-down Sam, is stilted in the role, especially when compared with his outrageous perf in "American Psycho." The Brit-born actor does a decent job at a generic American accent but either he does not give the character any development or the script doesn't allow Sam to change and grow. Sure, he understands where his mom is coming from, in the end, but he is no further resolved in his own life confusions.
Beckinsale, as Sam's fiancée Alex, comes across as someone who has the revelation, as someone who has worked hard most of her adult life, that fun is more fun than work (something that I, personally, have known for quite some time). She never really sheds her uptight Boston Brahman upbringing and comes across as a person who finally realizes that goofing off has its merits. Alessandro Nivola is charming as an English musician who is Jane's latest artistic endeavor and her choice as lover. Nivola is charming and handsome in the role of Ian, who adores Jane but has no problems with awakening the buried, burning libido in Alex.
"Laurel Canyon" is a sexually charged piece of work that delves into areas of truth, loyalty and honesty, as well as carnal awakening, that will have a decent amount of appeal to young adults with McDormand providing a hook to draw in more mature audiences. If you are offended by the liberal use of alcohol and drugs, mainly pot, then I advise you to be warned. If, however, you want to see a first class perf by McDormand and a sexually titillating family story, then I think you might enjoy it. I give it a B-.
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