Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko
With Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone and Alessandro Nivola
Rated R; 103 minutes
It goes without saying that at some point, even the happiest of children believes that his real, actual parents have abandoned him, leaving him with embarrassing, goofy space aliens who call themselves "mom" and "dad" but are just killing time waiting for the Mother Ship to pick them up. For some kids, this feeling lasts all the way through adolescence and beyond. The slightly radical idea of Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon is that a parent can suspect the same thing - a mother can look at her child and ask not "Where did I go wrong?" but "Did I actually give birth to this uptight little prick?"
Frances McDormand, who plays Jane, the mother in question, gets this idea across in a performance laced with the subtlety and skill that she is known for. Jane is a record producer who is old enough to have thousands of actual albums - not CDs - lining the walls of her fabulously funky house in the titular canyon. She's still producing albums and still enjoying the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll lifestyle, having what looks like a spirited affair with Ian McKnight, her current band's lead singer/songwriter, played by Alessandro Nivola.
McDormand's character could have been a mass of clichés - Earth Mother, leftover hippie, sexually predatory older woman - but Lisa Cholodenko's writing and direction combine winningly with McDormand's ability to make even the oddest behavior both touching and charming. McDormand pulled off the same difficult trick in her Academy Award-winning performance as Fargo's Marge Gunderson, Jane's polar opposite but no less believable in McDormand's hands.
Jane's question (which isn't voiced, just transmitted between the lines in a curious kind telepathy with the audience) concerns her grown son Sam (Christian Bale), who has come to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckinsale). He's beginning a prestigious residence in psychiatry, she's completing her dissertation on the mating habits of fruit flies. These two wild and crazy kids don't expect to find Jane still home (she's completing work on Ian's album in the recording studio that's part of the house), but Sam decides to grimace and bear it. Aw, it's a tough life, living rent-free in a beautiful house with a pool. The price is having a mother who is not only miles hipper than he will ever be, but also one who attracts beautiful young things, of both sexes, with apparent ease.
The story's sexual and romantic complications also include a flirtation that drifts into something more serious between Sam and Sara, a fellow resident (Natascha McElhone), as well as a growing attraction among Alex, Jane and Ian. Alex is another interesting character: her actions seems less like a woman exploring her possible bisexuality than someone simply finding that there's a world beyond intellect and rationality. It's understandable that she would be attracted to this milieu: Sam has swung his own personal pendulum so far away from his mother's bohemianism that he's suspicious of anything that can't be filed, classified and categorized.
This may sound rather highfalutin' but it all goes down easily in the viewing. Cholodenko's script is sly and witty, and she has chosen her actors well. Besides being absurdly good-looking, they convey the characters' interlocking, shifting emotional states with subtlety and style. And Cholodenko is smart enough not to make anyone into an obvious villain - they're all finally just human. Still, Laurel Canyon is somewhat less than compelling overall. Perhaps there's not enough at stake for these people, or maybe it's just hard having sympathy for pretty people with petty problems. But take a trip up this canyon to see some fine ensemble work and the latest portrait from one of America's top actresses.