Legendary record producer Jane (Frances McDormand) is working on a new album at her Laurel Canyon house and studio for a British band whose lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola) is her latest - and much younger - lover. When her recently graduated medic son Sam (Christian Bale) arrives to stay, with his girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckisnale), also from Harvard medical school, he doesn’t expect Jane to be there. While the young lovers look for a permanent apartment, their emotional lives are thrown into chaos by the clash of cultures that Sam and his mother represent, threatening every relationship in the Laurel Canyon house.
Review by Louise Keller:
It may sound like a woman’s name, but in fact Laurel Canyon is a Los Angeles street that is home to some of the music industry’s funky. Separating the middle class conservatives from the unbridled excesses of the uninhibited, this is the setting for Lisa Cholodenko’s film about attitude, lifestyle and relationships. Frances McDormand’s forty-something groupie and record producer Jane is a formidable character, enjoying an unapologetic debauchery of a life immersed in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. In fact, Jane with her lusty free spirit and wild shock of blonde hair is the antithesis of McDormand’s prudish mother in Almost Famous (‘Don’t take drugs!’), and her performance once again rings true.
Life is a never-ending party with plenty of laughs and loads of spontaneity. Not so for her son Sam, who not only cringes at the very thought of his mother, but apologies for her. “She’s weird; I don’t want you to be surprised,” he tells his fiancée. The worlds of conservatism and excess collide head on as Sam and fiancée Alex move in with Jane and her rock band. But this is Jane’s world, and it is Sam who is the outcast. As Alex is seduced by the novelty of this relaxed and unconventional lifestyle, her relationship with Sam changes and the wedge of strain comes between them.
In the meantime, Sam finds solace in sharing his daily work issues with beautiful medical student Sara, who has no compunction whatsoever in showing her feelings. Cholodenko lures us from one world to the other: from the restrained conservatism to the decadence of life with no boundaries. The best part about the film is the characters, even though Sam and Alex are not exploited to their fullest potential. All the performances are superb – Christian Bale’s enigmatic Sam who is struggling to come to terms with his mother’s chosen life; Kate Beckinsale’s Alex who tip-toes into the hot water of experimentation; Allesandro Nivola’s playful rock-star Ian; Natascha McElhone’s vulnerable Sara.
Music weaves its way through the film like a bond between the characters, but it’s the relationships that lie at the heart of the film, and none more complicated and fascinating than that of mother and son. While this is not the kind of film that demands a resolution, the way the characters evolve is mostly satisfying – perhaps things are clearest at the most unlikely of moments.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
There is a low rise, unsigned hotel in a short street off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, once a two star motel, which re-invented itself, renovated the rooms and became a playground and home away from home for touring rock bands and film industry folk. It has two pools; one for the private villas where the rock stars stayed, another for the entourage. A
jaccuzzi bubbles under the (real) stars (if you could see them) in the private gardens, but you can see rabbits scurry through the lawns. The Sunset Marquis – where I used to be a frequent guest from the mid 80s to the early 90s - is a few short blocks from the Chateau Marmont, another famed rock star hotel and one of the locations for this film.
From what little I saw at the Sunset, and what world-weary knowledge I have accumulated, the veracity of Laurel Canyon’s rock music credentials in terms of atmos and mise en scene, are spot on. The cast is brilliant, delivering sizzling scene after sizzling scene. See Frances McDermond as a vagina-powered drill. See Christian Bale as her morally opposite son. See Kate Beckinsale as snowhite going slushy. See the rancidity of Alessandro Nivola as a rocker without a roll bar. But I don’t like the script. Lisa Cholodenko’s first film, High Art, had a far more sophisticated (that is, developed) screenplay, in which the sexuality of the characters and their relationships were elements that flowed naturally and credibly.
Here, the characters, rock music setting and the sex are treated like recipe elements to ensure maximum voltage value – without cohesion. Overt devices – like Sam’s saintly do-gooding medic in a psychiatric ward – are stuck in to make sure we ‘get’ Sam as a good guy. Alex’s unravelling from an uptight conservative to experimenting free spirit plays out like a simplistic join-the-dots game. In all, the script of Laurel Canyon feels forced and manipulative, simplistic at times, and not only predictable, but dissatisfying. Geographically, Laurel Canyon is not far from Mulholland Drive; cinematically, it’s streets apart.
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LAUREL CANYON (MA)
CAST: Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola, Lou Barlow, Russell Pollard, Imaad Wasif, Mickey Petralia, Melissa De Sousa
PRODUCER: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Susan A. Stover
DIRECTOR: Lisa Cholodenko
SCRIPT: Lisa Cholodenko
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Wally Pfister
EDITOR: Amy E. Duddleston
MUSIC: Craig Wedren (Mark Linkous - songs)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Catherine Hardwicke
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 30, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Home Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: April 28, 2004