Laurel Canyon
review by Nicholas Schager, 7 March 2003

Thereís no shortage of sex, drugs, and rock and roll in Lisa Cholodenkoís Laurel Canyon, but one wishes there were a few less yuppies. Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale star as Sam and Alex, an intellectual couple of recent Harvard Medical School graduates with no sexual, romantic, or social life. Despite the protestations of Alexís father, the two abandon their East Coast residence to complete their studies in California while staying at the supposedly vacant home of Samís counterculture record producer mom Jane (Frances McDormand). However, when they arrive, Jane is still holed up in her house trying to complete a record with a wild British band whose lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), is also her lover du jour. Sam and Jane are like oil and water, and itís not long before we recognize Laurel Canyon to be a film about time-worn clashes: between mother and son, preppie and hippie.

Complicating Samís homecoming are two formidable obstacles: Alex actually likes Janeís devil-may-care lifestyle, and Samís beautiful Israeli co-worker Sara (Natascha McElhone) has taken a (not unreciprocated) liking to him. Writer/director Cholodenko, as in her debut High Art, is fascinated by the ways in which happy relationships become complicated. If only Laurel Canyon didnít feel so painfully obvious and programmed from the get-go. As Alex is seduced by both Jane and Ian (whose passionate love affair is the opposite of hers and Samís), Sam finds himself drawn to the enticing Sara, but the drama elicited from these shenanigans is painfully rote and predictable. When Cholodenko has Alex and Sam awkwardly fail to have sex while Jane and Ianís screams of ecstasy are heard reverberating through the house, itís a sign that thereís very little originality or surprise left in Laurel Canyon.

Will both Sam and Alex learn something about themselves and each other, and find a way to make their relationship work? Will Sam ever accept his Mom, faults and all, for the loving woman that she really is? Will Jane ever grow up? You wonít have to hold your breath for the answers, since theyíre deduced easily enough from the filmís first fifteen minutes. Yet if the liberal-conservative conflict at the heart of the story Ė also embodied in Janeís battles with the commerce-first record label, who wants the bandís album finished in time for Christmas so that it can ďmove more unitsĒ Ė is disappointingly uninspired, the film at least benefits from the chemistry of its almost uniformly excellent cast. As Jane, McDormand, with blond highlights and decked out in a variety of skin tight faded blue jeans and band T-shirts, gets her juiciest role in years, and her relationship with Nivolaís rakish, smoldering Ian sizzles. Jane is introduced while smoking a bong, and her uninhibited penchant for nudity, cursing, and bisexuality is complemented by a tinge of regret over having put her wild life before her sonís. McDormand has a devilishly good time playing Jane, and itís a testament to her performanceís casual artlessness that Jane doesnít disintegrate into a caricature of peace-and-love slackers.

Similarly, Bale and Beckinsale feel right at home with each other, although their easy rapport might have something to do with the fact that both foreign actors (Bale is Welsh, Beckinsale English) sport similarly distracting American accents for the film. But while Beckinsaleís Alex is allowed to branch out from her stultifying bookish life, Bale is saddled with the thankless role of perpetually repressed dork with a conscience. Itís one thing for Cholodenko to split the world into two camps Ė artistic cool people and academic losers Ė and another thing entirely to saddle your lead actor with a nerdy haircut, sub-J. Crew outfit, and little to do except look dry and constipated every time he gets near his momís rowdy friends. Even Baleís best scenes, involving his parent-sibling bickering with McDormand, are few and far between, scattered among too many sequences of Sam acting petulant or emotionally remote. Of course, I dare any actor to elicit sympathy when his characterís biggest dilemma is whether to choose between Kate Beckinsale and Natascha McElhone. One wishes Sam would just smoke some grass, take a look at his charmed life, and stop complaining.

Written and
Directed by:

Lisa Cholodenko

Starring:
Frances McDormand
Christian Bale
Kate Beckinsale
Natascha McElhone
Alessandro Nivola

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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