Laurel Canyon Movie Review
This intimate drama (by director Lisa Cholodenko) deals with the effect a liberal living standard might have on a young, impressionable, Harvard graduate with a conservative nature and great looks. She's Alex (Kate Beckinsale), the fiancé of Sam Bentley (Christian Bale), who needs to come to Los Angeles to complete his residency at the renowned Hausman Neuropsychiatric Institute. The move to a quiet hillside home will enable Alex to complete her dissertation on Drosophila Genomics, the world of chromosomes and centimorgans applied to the reproductive aspects of the fruit fly. No dummy, this lady.
The plan is to stay at Sam's mother's place on Hollywood Way, off Laurel Canyon Blvd. while she, Jane Bentley (Frances McDormand), a successful record producer with a hippie lifestyle, is at her Malibu pad. But plans have a way of going awry in this household. Jane has given the Malibu house to her ex-lover and has remained in the Hollywood home, a property with swimming pool and recording studio, working to complete her new boyfriend's album.
Disappointed in his mother's laissez faire, unapologetic attitude, Sam tasks Alex with finding a rental house while he spends his workdays in residence at the medical institute, where he meets the attractive co-resident Sara (Natascha McElhone). While this leads to certain temptations for Sam, they're nothing compared to where Alex is going.
Without Sam around, Alex becomes so fascinated by pleasure seeking Jane and Ian McNight, her sexually opportunistic younger boyfriend and the lead singer of the group, that she abandons her studies, feints her efforts to find alternate lodgings, and embarks on a course of behavior that leads to a menage à trois and a rather total betrayal of her unsuspecting fiancé.
The questionable character behavior and the avoidance of consequence (with a copout ending) for what would and should be life-changing, relationship-adjusting acts, are story weaknesses -- the acts depict exceedingly reckless choices for such smart people. First of all for Alex, who takes a direction that seems not likely to be part of her character possibilities, dramatic though it may be. The dissolution of her moral values is the core of the drama, raising the ante for its persuasiveness. Secondly for Jane, who, for all her freewheeling ways, is a complex and vulnerable person with considerable intelligence and control. Before she would engage in forbidden sexual fruit, she might be expected to balance it against the betrayal of her own son, for whom she avows her constant motherly love. Would she so readily abandon that for a little instant gratification?
Despite the insistent prurience in the writing, the performances are pro and much production value is accomplished on a modest budget. We've never before seen McDormand as a self-indulgent woman of tight jeans and bleached hair -- a gal so far away from her "sheriff" in Fargo or her "mother" in Almost Famous that you're reminded of what acting skill is all about. Pert Londoner Beckinsale shows some departure from the safety of primmer roles, such as her Nurse Lt. Evelyn Johnson in Pearl Harbor, though she does her three sex scenes here with a fastidious lack of nudity. Bale plays Sam with convincing emotional injury while struggling against temptation, providing the sympathetic rock we cling to, and leaving us with a desire to see more of this actor's capable naturalness.
Cholodenko, with credits for directing episodes of Six Feet Under and Homicide: Life on the Street, TV series, previously wrote and directed High Art in 1998. Her arousal of emotional fireworks when disparate lifestyles and values clash, with the attempt to draw in the vulnerability under everyone's skin to balance the battle, portend creative product ahead that will be worth watching for.
Since this town provides star sightings as regularly as Lotto winners, I'm going to be especially vigilant for Natascha McElhone driving down Laurel, as she does in the film. What an image to contemplate. And, please, you folks who don't live here, don't take this steamy romp for a representation of Hollywood life. You hardly even see any hippies around here anymore.
Rock on, Frances.