Laurel Canyon

2003, Movie, R, 103 mins

Review

LAUREL CANYON
starstarstarstar
Family values get a workout in this clash of generations and sexual mores, played out against the backdrop of L.A.'s Laurel Canyon, longtime refuge of the moneyed counterculture. Newly engaged doctors-in-training Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale), straight-arrow overachievers, move to California so Sam can do his residence at an L.A. hospital and Alex can finish up her dry-as-dust dissertation on fruit flies. They run headlong into a one-woman tornado of libertine attitudes in record-producer Jane (Frances McDormand), who happens to be Sam's mom. Jane's offer to let them use her Laurel Canyon house seemed ideal when they thought she'd be somewhere else, but when Sam and Alex arrive Jane's not only there, but still in the throes of producing a record for a bunch of English rockers. They're all there too, and one, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), is Jane's considerably younger new boyfriend. Sam charges Alex with finding them new digs, but she drags her heels, intrigued by the heady and entirely unfamiliar air of hedonism — life with her snooty collegiate parents was nothing like the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll circus in perpetual progress chez Jane. Sam fled this very anything-goes atmosphere, so he retreats into his patients and a burgeoning friendship with fellow resident Sara (Natascha McElhone) that threatens to develop into something more. The parts are stronger than the whole in Lisa Choldenko's follow-up to her acclaimed debut, HIGH ART (1998), and the story is less a sustained narrative than a series of scenes. But personal dynamics are the main event, and McDormand's powerhouse performance alone compensates for many minor deficiencies. Smart, sexually confident and determined, Jane is also headstrong and self-centered; even Sam, her toughest critic, doesn't doubt her maternal devotion, but her addiction to adventure and personal exploration resulted in on-the-fly parenting. Relative newcomer Nivola is also outstanding, making Ian sexually adventurous but not sleazy or exploitative. The weak link is Beckinsale, whose transformation from repressed grind to flegling party girl is abrupt and unconvincing; Bale's Sam, by contrast, is beautifully modulated — he's a bit of a priss, but he never degenerates into a pious hypocrite. Curiously, four of the five leads are playing against their natural accents: UK natives Bale and Beckinsale play American, London-born McElhone is meant to be Israeli (though truth be told, she sounds more Russian) and American Nivola plays English, as do the musicians of Folk Implosion, who play his band. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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