**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone
written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko
by Walter Chaw Buoyed by a fantastic performance from Frances McDormand, Lisa Cholodenko's follow-up to her deft, well-regarded High Art is the disappointing, sprawling, somewhat overreaching Laurel Canyon. In its ambition it resembles Rose Troche's third film, The Safety of Objects--that picture also saddled with a large, veteran cast and a problem with focus, but most importantly with the responsibility of a young filmmaker given the opportunity, with a bigger budget and well-regarded performers, to produce a piece commensurate in scale to that perceived expectation. The problem with the situation is that more times than not it leads to the type of film that Laurel Canyon is: ostentatious in structure, but in that way also a departure from the succinct character observations that brought the young artist the opportunity in the first place.
Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are engaged--he a psychiatry intern, she working on her PhD dissertation on the biological basis of fruit fly reproductive behaviour. Moving to California, Sam and Alex decide to stay at Sam's mother's house in Laurel Canyon, little suspecting that Sam's mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a highly successful record producer, is camped out in the house finishing an album, smoking blunts, and having a relationship with Ian (Alessandro Nivola), the punk kid lead singer of the band.
The elements that are good about Laurel Canyon (and much of the film is quite good) are found in the details of the interactions between Jane and her much younger lover Ian and the early moments between repressed, perfectionist Alex and the mutating influence of the alien hippie vibe of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. What sinks the film, ultimately, is a flat storyline and a performance by Bale and his semi-adulterous love interest (Natascha McElhone, demonstrating that her inhuman remove in Solaris wasn't acting) that saps interest and disrupts rhythm.
The relational symbolism is too broad--the power struggle between Sam and Alex defined in the bedroom by cunnilingus and on an airplane by Travel Scrabble is laid bare in a superfluous line that clarifies Sam's desire to level the playing field. Even Alex's dissertation is a statement about that character's separation of heart from head. Laurel Canyon is overwritten, in other words--too little trust afforded the audience or, just as likely, too many touchstones required to keep all the plates spinning.
Still, McDormand is a force of nature in her bohemian matriarchy, her Jane completely unaffected and at ease in the middle of a home seemingly comprised entirely of a top-of-the-line recording studio, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a very expensive-seeming sofa nook festooned with photos of Jane rubbing elbows with The Boss. The artificiality of the setting fits in well with the atmosphere of artificiality in the rarefied air of Laurel Canyon, but the artificiality of the forced character evolutions is far less convincing.
Far from the dark ambiguity of High Art, Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon is actually about happy endings and reunifications of familial structures--it's not that I didn't enjoy the film, it's that by the end of it, I didn't respect it so much. Despite all the weaknesses of the picture, there's a moment involving toes late in the film that strikes at the heart of McDormand's character and of her relationship with her son at that moment in time. It's subtle, and graceful, and though the rest of the film never quite lives up to this epiphany, it reminds of what Cholodenko is capable--and of the promise that she might get there again. Originally published: March 28, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Columbia TriStar distributes the enjoyable Laurel Canyon on DVD in a delectable 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that makes the film look expensive. Director Lisa Cholodenko talks extensively about her collaboration with Memento's "guyish, techie" cinematographer Wally Pfister on the film in a supplemental 21-minute interview that tidily sums up her also-included feature-length commentary. (Cholodenko credits Pfister with Laurel Canyon's drollest moment, the punchline to a set-up involving a remote-control boat inside a swimming pool.) The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 track (Amazon currently erroneously reports the disc as containing an additional DTS option) delivers the songs by Sparklehorse with punch, though this is ultimately a mix in the vain of most comedies, leaving pyrotechnics off its agenda. Two TV spots and trailers for Laurel Canyon, All the Real Girls, Love Liza, and Talk to Her round out the disc. For more on Cholodenko, read our exclusive Q&A with the director. Originally published: June 18, 2003.