Laurel Canyon Reviews
2003's "Laurel Canyon," a mixed bag of an existential drama, concerns the individual plights of Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale), an engaged couple attempting to navigate adult life with graduate school recently behind them. Both stuffy and borderline neurotic, we meet the twosome just as they're moving from the respectable Harvard scene to the crowded territory of Los Angeles. Sam is a psychiatrist who has found work at a prestigious hospital in the area; Alex, a genomics major, is working on her dissertation.
The couple is in the titular region, much to Sam's disdain, because of his mother's (Frances McDormand) living there. Previous planning suggested that they'd be able to live in one her vacant homes while looking for potential houses. But as the result of a last minute change, Sam's mother, Jane, a legendary record producer, will remain at the quarters as they set up camp there. Since Sam and Jane's relationship is practically estranged, since Alex is hopelessly stuffy, and since Jane is mixing an LP and is having a fling with her focused upon band's frontman (Alessandro Nivola), things are bound to get messy. Nocuous, too, is Alex's increasing interest in Jane and company's fuck it lifestyle, and Sam's attraction to a co-worker (Natascha McElhone).
"Laurel Canyon" is wise when it comes to its characters -- Jane is so multi-layered that we feel as though we've known her for years, and Sam and Alex's inner tug-of-wars are more than just a little palatable -- but it's underdeveloped in story, which is mostly slice-of-life in scope but otherwise intrinsically stagy instead of free flowing like it should be. It wants to be a character study just as much as it wants to be a drama of acclaimed Off-Broadway distinction, and the indecisiveness makes it provocative but never quite involving.
But Cholodenko's understanding of her characters is admirable in its subtle brushstrokes, and her actors are finely cast -- McDormand, in particular, preternaturally redefines herself. And yet "Laurel Canyon," like its lost protagonists, always seems to be searching for something, even if that something is persistently unknowable. Interesting, but sometimes drivel.
Janes son Sam (Christian Bale) and his fiance Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are both recent graduates of Harvard medical school. Conservative, solid and serious, the couple find it necessary to move to Los Angeles to complete their studies Sam is completing his Residency at the renowned Hausman Neuropsychiatric Institute, while Alex is intent on completing her dissertation on Drosophilia Genomics. Jane has offered her Laurel Canyon home for them to stay in, promising that it will be vacant. But when Sam and Alex arrive Jane and the Band are still working in Jane's home recording studio to complete the album. Sam and Alex begrudgingly stay at Jane's house until they can find an alternative place to live.
Once in the house, however, things begin to slowly unravel. Alex's attraction to Jane's and Ian's freewheeling lifestyle and Sam's hesitancy about renewing a relationship with his wayward mother as well as his growing attraction to fellow medical resident Sara (Natascha McElhone) slowly fill the house with tension and doubt...
also sstars Lou Barlow, Russ Pollard, Armad Wassif, Mickey Petralia and Melissa De Sousa.
directed by Lisa Cholodenko.
I like movies with smart characters, and this one has two very smart people in the leading roles. Sam (Christian Bale), has recently become engaged to Alex (Kate Beckinsale), and the two have decided to move to Los Angeles. Sam has recently graduated and is starting his residency at the local hospital, while Alex is continuing her studies. They are going to stay at Sam's mother's house, which she won't be at because she'll be on her beach house. Or so we think. Turns out, she gave the beach house to her ex-husband -- something you can do when you're a rich record producer -- and has herself, and a band, staying in the one she promised Sam. Oops.
It's no big deal, right? Alex only needs peace and quiet to finish her dissertation, and a band will totally not be an inconvenience considering all they do is play music really loud. Right. Anyway, Sam's mother, Jane (Frances McDormand) is in a relationship with the band's lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), which is about as open a relationship as you're going to get. You can already see the ways these different lifestyles are going to clash.
So, Alex, who spends the day around the house, eventually starts to get involved in the culture that is Jane's life, while Sam, who rarely gets to leave the hospital -- such is the life of a doctor -- starts finding himself spending a lot of time with another woman, a fellow doctor, Sara (Natascha McElhone). Problems arise that need solving, obviously, and it'll all work itself out in the end. Maybe. Probably not. I don't really know or care.
The point is that it doesn't matter. The film could have complete closure, or it could be open-ended, and it would make no difference to me. None of the storylines managed to connect in any meaningful way, and even in the really tense, dramatic moments, I found myself yawning. There's not a whole lot of character depth, and any development that happens is superficial. These characters have to act this way because of the way the film has been written, not because they really should.
At the center of all the film's chaos is Frances McDormand, the only actor here who both creates a new character and becomes fully immersed in that creation. She deserves the top billing received here, even though the film isn't about her; it only becomes that way because of the presence she has while on-screen. Here, her hippie-of-the-70s woman is always compelling to watch, and if Laurel Canyon was about her and not a couple set on different trajectories, it might have worked. But, alas, this is not the movie we've been given.
Everyone else in the film is fine, but nothing special, especially when compared to or sharing the screen with McDormand. Bale, Beckinsale, Nivola, McElhone -- they're all accomplished in their own right, but their performances here are just fine. Nothing special, nothing bad; they do what they're told and they do it believably and credibly, but without managing to capture the screen. There are only so many ways to say that their performances are what's required and nothing more.
Fun fact: McDormand is also the only main actor who gets to use a natural accent. Beckinsale in English, playing an American. Bale is Welsh, also playing an American. Nivola is American, but playing a Brit, while McElhone is English, but playing an Iranian, I believe. That's not noticeable while the film is playing -- all of the accents are credible and if you didn't know the actors' natural accents, you wouldn't notice -- but I thought it was a fun thing to mention.
The problem for me is that it's all well-made, and that if it had something to interest us, I would have been very appreciative. Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous directorial effort was the acclaimed High Art, knows what she's doing. But the story is the problem here, not the director. Very few people could make this plot captivating, as it has been done before and isn't particularly interesting regardless of how many times it has been done.
Laurel Canyon is the type of film about which I have little to say. It's all fine and competent, but not compelling. If you're looking for a film to watch just because it's technically sound, then it's fine, but if you want a drama in which you can invest yourself, you'll want to look elsewhere. Good dramas have strong characters; Laurel Canyon has one. Frances McDormand shines, and fans of her should see it even though everything around is uninteresting. She captures the screen with the character she creates, and actually helps hide flaws in other areas. But, the film as a whole is not worth your time.