Laurel Canyon

March, 2003, Comedy

American movies aren't known for being especially sly--the bludgeon, not the stiletto, is more our national style. Independent films occasionally give lie to that truism, even though they garner scant from more than a handful of moviegoers. Lovely and Amazing and Sunshine State proved the exceptions last year; Laurel is the first wonderful example in 2003. It takes the familiar "generation gap" storyline, turns it inside out, and delivers a handful of characters to perfectly match the plot's droll premise.

Frances McDormand plays a late 40ish music producer whose home-based recording studio in the Los Angles hills gives this movie its name. Frances has a penchant for good weed and bad boyfriends; yet when her estranged son, (Christian Bale) accepts an L.A. based residency in psychiatry after finishing medical school in Boston, she impulsively offers him and his finance the use of her house during their temporary stay on the West Coast. But they arrive to discover that it's still occupied by Mom and the British rock band whose latest album she (and they) are slow in completing.

Bale's childhood and adolescence were completed on autopilot, thanks to his mother's freewheeling ways, and he's struggled to maturity appalled by her behavior and resentful of her neglect. Beckinsale, also a doctor, (and now laboring on a P.H.D. in genomic studies) seems perfectly suited to the anal-retentive personality Bale's constructed, but her sudden exposure to the unconventional lifestyle of her future mother-in-law and her resident rockers provides an irresistible, seductive temptation for the uptight Kate, due particularly to the charms of the band's leader, who happens double as McDormand's current inamorata. Bale's tightly constructed existence is simultaneously challenged by Natascha McElhone; she's a fellow resident at the hospital where he's treating real patients for the first time. Her attentions threaten to prevent him from keeping his career and engagement on the straight and narrow.  Will Mom's lover seduce his finance? Will he succumb to McElhone's devastatingly honest charms? Will Bale and McDormand reconcile? Will they ever finish recording that damn album so everyone can go their separate ways?

Many of these questions are answered with a resounding maybe, and it's to writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's, credit that she manages to convince her audience that in life, maybe is often the best answer available. Laurel Canyon is all about the boundaries people impose on themselves, and the limitless ways in which those restraints are assaulted by the random intrusions of daily life. Given the script's delicious mix of conventional/unconventional characters, the events that unfold in the story are surprisingly credible, as are the reactions of the quintet of principal players to them. And if Dr. and Mrs. Uptight-to-be are forced to confront whether they've set the bar too high to permit a decent amount of spontaneity in their workaholic lives, Mom and her boy-toy progress from blithe narcissism to a certain rueful awareness of their own potential destructiveness, even as they seem incapable of escaping it. The film's final image cleverly leaves the cast in a state of communal suspended animation, a perfectly apt conclusion to this witty, insightful examination of high-end urban life.

The five leads are wonderful; Kate Beckinsale's brittle sexuality fairly screams for release, while Natascha McElhone puts moves on the beleaguered Christian Bale with devastating frankness. Alessandro Nivola gives McDormand's rocker boyfriend a fey charm that manages to both simultaneously annoy and attract. But the film belongs to McDormand and Bale. He comes to this film from a series of beefcake roles in his earlier movies that don't suggest the subtle blend of whiny self-absorption and basic decency his understated performance demonstrates here; much of the film's tension relies on the mixed reactions the audience is meant to feel about his character, and he delivers with accomplished credibility. 

Finally, there's McDormand, surely one of the most interesting American women acting in movies today. She conveys her maternal instincts with the same fierce determination she brings to her relationship with her consort, making their 16 year age difference irrelevant and her middle-aged sexually as vital and attractive as that displayed by the women in her son's generation. McDormand's playing a woman here who knows what she doesn’t know, but doesn't know what to do about it; that honesty especially shines at a particularly important moment for Beckinsale who may, (or may not) become her future daughter in law. At the film's end, a tired and battered McDormand sits barefoot at the end of her swimming pool, watching her grown son do laps with a bristling determination that attracts and frightens her. When she declares her love for him, it's an unadorned maternal expression that flows perfectly from the character she inhabits.

 Will mother and son ever completely understand each other? Not a chance. But will they be compelling forces in one another's lives? That may be the only question this wry examination of Lotus-Land lifestyles answers unequivocally. 

 The best movie of 2003 thus far? No question.        

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