When you see a glamorous movie star like Kate Beckinsale tying her hair back and wearing glasses, it's sure-fire shorthand that she's an uptight soul. But just in case you aren't familiar with all the usual signals, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko gives a couple of even more obvious ones in her second feature film, Laurel Canyon. Kate, as medical grad student Alex, not only bears the standard hallmarks, but she also gets huffy when someone translates the theme of her upcoming dissertation on Drosophila genomics into plain English, i.e., the sex life of fruit flies. That, and she keeps her shirt on while having sex (more on that later).
Hand-in-hand with the repressed chick generally comes the idea that by movie's end she'll have loosened up, let her hair down, and switched to contacts, often as a result of receiving sex from a free-spirited soul. Yet Alex's fiancé Sam (Christian Bale) is even more uptight than she is -- hell, he's more tightly wound than his character in American Psycho, and his American accent's better now, too. Alex's excuse is her snobbish Cambridge upbringing, but Sam's is the opposite. We never hear about Dad, but Mom -- or Jane, as her son insists on addressing her -- is a wild and crazy free spirit with an executive job at a record label (she's played by Frances McDormand, in what amounts to a total ironic role-reversal from Almost Famous). So when Alex and Sam head for L.A. to stay at Jane's "empty" pad while Sam continues his studies at a mental hospital, craziness ensues, as it turns out that Jane's still in the house. Ditto the band she's working with, fronted by British rocker Ian (Allesandro Nivola) and backed up by members of Folk Implosion. And boy, do they like to party!
Cholodenko's mining some familiar ground here. Her first feature, High Art, dealt similarly with tensions between the sterile world of competitive employment and the wild arts scene. Specifically, the tendency of those tensions to strain relationships and tempt people toward new loves and even new sexual orientations. The major change this time out is the geography -- L.A. as opposed to New York -- and that affects the film's dynamic, but not necessarily in the way that it should. Maybe it's that Cholodenko's more familiar with New York and loath to be too critical of another town, but Laurel Canyon lacks the sense of risk that High Art had, and in doing so, emasculates its apparent protagonist in Sam.
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Now, anyone who's ever had a wild and crazy mother probably resents the lack of stability that brings, but if we don't see the damage being done, or even get some decent hints, it's hard to assess. Jane comes off as a purely fun person to be around, and Sam looks like a bastard for constantly aiming passively cutting remarks in her direction. Where High Art clearly showed the dangers of the party scene via an overdose or two, Jane and friends never do much more than booze and pot, and they deliver their album more or less on time. A scene or two of Jane stumbling or otherwise screwing up while high might go a long way to explain the tension, but no -- she seems to handle things professionally and courteously while maintaining a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. So what's the problem?
The point, perhaps, is that Sam has to get worse before he can get better, and the movie does a good job of conveying that. The preferred method for putting him through the wringer is of course our old friend sexual temptation, which arrives for Sam in the form of Natascha McElhone, with a fake accent that sounds Russian, but late in the film is casually referred to as Israeli, like it was somehow obvious. Come to think of it, all the principals save McDormand use fake accents -- Brits Bale and Beckinsale do American and Boston-born Nivola does English. All sound fine except McElhone.
"But what about the lesbians?" the Cholodenko fan may ask. "Even her short films have lesbians; does this one?" Relax. How does a potential threesome sound? For it turns out that Alex's temptation will not merely be Anglo-accented Ian, but also Ian's paramour... Jane. Anyone who thinks of Frances McDormand as merely a comical figure from the likes of Fargo will have their eyes opened here, as we see a side (and a bare front) of her that's normally reserved for Joel Coen's eyes only.
Speaking of bare fronts, Cholodenko seems as fond of the blatant tit shot as Joel Silver, and for that we may be thankful. There's a problem, however, in that Beckinsale has clearly signed a no-nudity contract. Not that every actress need get naked, understand, but there are at least two sequences in the film that would seem, on paper, to call for it -- one's a skinny-dipping scene, the other a striptease. Both involve Beckinsale, and both feature her in not-particularly-revealing underwear, a fact the other characters seem to completely ignore. In High Art, the relative lack of nudity made sense, as Radha Mitchell's character was still feeling awkward about bisexuality, but here, Kate's clothing sticks out in scenes where it shouldn't. She does eventually lose the glasses, but she should have lost a good deal more.