Film Reviews


By • Mar 7th, 2003 •

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Written/Directed by Lisa Chodolenko (HIGH ART), LAUREL CANYON is a complex film about relationships. If you were just grossly disappointed by that first sentence (which I suspect is about half of you), relax and read on. This one is worth it.

As in Chodolenko’s HIGH ART, the film’s main conflict is centered about the seductive draw of “otherness,” be it lifestyles, people, places, or situations unlike anything the protagonists have ever experienced.

The premise: Sam and his fiancé Alex, both recent graduates of Harvard Medical School, have moved to Los Angeles with plans to stay in Jane’s (Sam’s mother) house on Laurel Canyon and complete their studies. They are the serious, studious, straight-edge sort. Antithetically, Jane is free-spirited, new age-y, likes sex, pot, skinny-dipping and activities of the like. Conflict: Jane’s hippie ways are, for some reason, mortifyingly embarrassing to her son, who has huge reservations about introducing his new fiancé to her. Much to Sam’s dismay, the house is not empty as anticipated since Jane, a record producer, has stayed to complete a hit single for a British Band whose lead singer also happens to be her much younger lover. The house is gorgeous and expansive, complete with swimming pool, recording studio and views of the valley. Reluctantly, Sam and Alex decide to stay, on the condition that she will look for other lodgings where Jane will not be partying and having loud sex (in the evidently very thin-walled house).

Sam begins his residency at a nearby hospital. Back at the house, Alex settles into her makeshift study with a laptop and research data on the sexual activity of fruit flies. At first she avoids Jane and the band like the plague, but eventually, just as we expect, she is lured out of hiding and into the recording studio. So much for fruit flies (not to mention her imminent marriage). They are no match for the intrigue and on goings in the studio or for Jane herself. Ruggedly beautiful, Francis McDormand is captivating in this role, radiating strength, charm and a universal sex appeal that is, at times, palpable. I was, like Alex and the rest of Jane’s entourage, smitten with her. Jane is everything Alex is not: hard-ass, impulsive and comfortable with her sexuality. Ian, Jane’s rampantly sexual lover, holds further appeal still. Alessandro Nivola is a perfect pick for the part. Not only does he sing all his own songs, when he grins mischievously, you don’t quite know if you want to kick him or kiss him, and you sense this is Alex’s dilemma as well.

At the hospital, Sam is tantalized by Sara, a Siren disguised as a medical resident. Sara, played by Natasha McElhorne, is underdeveloped. She serves only to tempt Sam into bed; other than that, we are given scant insight into her. McElhorne does little to help the character along aside from giving a wide-eyed seductive stare every now again and I’m not completely convinced of her pull on Sam, who genuinely seems to value what he and Alex share. As Alex, Kate Beckinsale’s metamorphosis is a believable one, a credit to Chodolenko’s writing. Succumbing to her whims, she becomes flawed and human, and instantly more likable.

The film, of course, has its problems. The “lifestyles” in question are, at times, a bit too categorical and stereotyped. However, McDormand quickly allays the urge to criticize the second she walks into every frame; you truly understand why Alex loves her, though perhaps fleetingly so.

In closing, LAUREL CANYON is an ambitious film in all that it attempts to examine: relationships in all their complexities, intimacy, fidelity, sexuality and varying notions of success. To investigate such basic human concerns and commonalities and to do so believably is no easy feat, but powered by a poignant and witty script and an incredibly strong group of actors, Chodolenko succeeds.

Written & Directed By : Lisa Cholodenko
Producers : Susan A. Stover, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Executive Producer : Scott Ferguson
Co-Producers : David McGiffert, Dara Weintraub
Director of Photography : Wally Pfister
Music Supervisor : Karyn Rachtman
Original Score : Craig Evans

Jane : Frances McDormand
Sam : Christian Bale
Alex : Kate Beckinsale
Sara : Natasha McElhone
Ian : Alessando Nivola

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