"Laurel Canyon" brandishes a lot of hip and a bit of edge as it comes swinging into theaters. But at heart it's a simple — and dare I say old fashioned — story. You know, boy meets girl, boy meets girl's family, girl meets boys family, boy gets embarrassed, girl explores a menage a trois with the mother and her rock star boyfriend, yada, yada, yada, happy ending.
"Laurel Canyon" happens to be the name of a street that connects Hollywood to the San Fernado Valley and LA born writer/director Lisa Cholodenko clearly knows her way around the neighborhood. For her characters, Laurel Canyon is a place, a state of mind and a mini continental divide: a drop of water that falls on the San Fernando side of the street is destined for much different waters than the Hollywood side. The boy is Sam, played by Christian Bale, who has rebelled against his rebellious mother by becoming an uptight psychiatrist. The girl is Alex, played by Kate Beckinsale, who is a brilliant aspiring geneticist but skittish as a fawn. They met at Harvard Medical School and are relocating to Los Angeles, and though the city is no doubt full of head cases and genetic marvels, it isn't the smartest career move and the engaged couple arrives with trepidation all over their faces. Through unforeseen circumstance they are forced to live with Sam's mother Jane at her Laurel Canyon home. Jane, played by Frances McDormand, is a record producer of the old school, a school that still excels in drinking, drugs, sloth and sex. From the moment our conservative youngsters walk in on the bong-smoking mom and the British rock band she's producing, we just know something's gotta give.
When the film cuts to the band’s mischievous lead singer (Alessandro Nivola) greeting the delicious sight of Kate Beckinsale, we have a good idea where things are going. When the film introduces the stunning Natascha McElhone as a resident at Sam's new hospital, we have another good idea. "Laurel Canyon", like the street itself has an interesting turn or two, but everyone arrives at the expected destination. Even Sam, who, come to think of it had a look of trepidation on his face the entire film. And for that matter has Cristian Bale been less than pent-up in any film?
If there is a core conflict it's between the music industry lifestyle and the rest of the world. Cholodenko tilts her sympathies with the conservative young doctors to begin with, but slowly lets the suspicion wash over you that it might be kinda cool to make music all day and party all night. This really is Frances McDormand's film and she adds Jane to her collection of memorable characters who go beyond their cliches. She's a winner and a loser and the same time, and she can live with that. Despite the reconciliation at the end, we’re not so sure about Sam and Alex.
The music is good, which is important in a film about music, and "Laurel Canyon" has an air of authenticity which helps shoulder it through a fairly mundane story. A story, by they way, which climaxes when a guy has to choose between Kate Beckinsale and Natascha McElhone.
Like they say....only in Los Angeles.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 3/12/03
US - 2002