Laurel Canyon (2003)

Starring: Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola

Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko

Rating: 1 2 3

Frances McDormand: beautiful and compelling as Jane

In Almost Famous, the ever fantastic Frances McDormand plays a neurotic mother terrified for her son's safety as he descends into the mayhem of a rock'n'roll lifestyle. In Laurel Canyon, however, the roles are reversed. This time McDormand gets to be the wild one, a dope-smoking, loose-living record producer whose chaotic Bohemian lifestyle is the despair of her stiff-necked son Sam (Christian Bale), an ultra conservative and somewhat joyless psychiatry student.

Worlds collide when Sam and uptight mega brainy girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckinsale) go to stay with Jane in her home in the Hollywood hills. Sam is afraid that Alex, who has clearly never had a day's fun in her life, will be shocked and unsettled by his mother's unconventional household: the drink and drugs and all night parties round the pool, Jane's toy boy lover, Ian (Alessandro Nivola, sporting one of those dodgy Michael Caine style mockney accents), the lack of proper food in the fridge etc etc. What he doesn't expect is that she will actually come to enjoy the easy-going lifestyle he has so firmly rejected.

Next thing you know, Alex is snogging not only Ian but Jane as well, although there must be something in the water at Laurel Canyon because at the same time Sam finds himself falling for the charms of glamorous fellow resident Sara (Natascha McElhone, sporting what I thought was a Russian accent, but which turned out to be Israeli).

Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale as Sam and Alex: anally retentive but sympathetic...

This is an interesting if somewhat frustrating film, held together mainly by the force and charm of McDormand's Jane, to whom the audience, like the characters of the film, are drawn like moths to a flame. From the start, we can see that Sam and Alex are a couple with problems, treating everything, from Scrabble to sex, which a serious-minded intensity guaranteed to suck all the fun out. Their lives revolve around their determination to excel at everything they do, and not, under any circumstances, ever to fuck up.

Fucking up, however, is what Jane does best, and once they stray into her territory Sam and Alex must learn to fuck up too, and to discover that it isn't necessarily the end of the world when they do.

In other words, the trajectory of the plot, such as it is, is pretty bloody obvious, and the ending is, I think, rather unsatisfactory. However, the characterisation is more subtle than the plot summary would suggest, and the performances by all the central protaganists are strong and believable, Bale and Beckinsale performing the miraculous task of making their anally retentive characters actually seem sympathetic, whilst McDormand is beautiful and compellingly credible as Jane.

Laurel Canyon may not be a masterpiece, but it's certainly a good way of killing a rainy Saturday afternoon so hey, go see it.

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