The Los Angeles sun can make for very deep shadows, nowhere deeper it sometimes seems than in the movies. There are those directors like Robert Altman who take great pleasure in tossing their characters into these pools of dark, usually to drown. Not Lisa Cholodenko: In the young director's new movie "Laurel Canyon," the characters don't ride out earthquakes or brave any of the other plagues that filmmakers are so fond of launching against us. For her and her characters, Los Angeles isn't a curse or a benediction, a troubling state of mind or a vacuous lifestyle choice. It's just home, shadows and all.
Cholodenko was raised in the Valley, and like many of us who drive through Laurel Canyon, she probably often wondered what went on beyond its embankments. (The traffic certainly gives you plenty of think time.) Over the years, residents such as Harry Houdini and Frank Zappa lent to the canyon's mystique as a boho refuge, as did Joni Mitchell with her 1970 album "Ladies of the Canyon."
In Jane (Frances McDormand), Cholodenko has created her own lady of the canyon, a legendary record producer whose shelves are lined with photographs of her hanging with Joni, Bruce and everyone who was anyone in the music business. Now in her early 40s, Jane is still going strong, mixing tracks with a hot young British band, whose lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), is also sharing her bed.
Jane embodies a wealth of site-specific contradictions. She chugs vegetable juice and smokes like a chimney, recalling writer Jerry Stahl's observation that here even addicts eat organic. More awkwardly, she plays earth mother to everyone save her son, Sam (Christian Bale), who, perhaps because he seems too old to be her kid, refers to Jane strictly (and dourly) by her first name. A medical student, Sam has moved back home for a summer job at a hospital. With his fiancée, Alex (Kate Beckinsale) in tow, he has arranged to live at the Laurel Canyon house while his mother moves into her Malibu retreat. Jane, meanwhile, has donated her ocean digs to a former boyfriend, a fact she forgets to tell Sam until he and Alex are at her door, clutching rollaway suitcases as tightly as they clench their jaws.
A psychological patchwork, "Laurel Canyon" tells the story of how Jane, Sam, Alex and Ian come together and fall apart, individually and together. Sam, who barely can contain his fury at his mother for a lifetime of unexplained injury, has become a physician in desperate need of self-healing. Alex, her hair primly upswept and her computer crammed with dreary data (she's writing a dissertation on the reproductive life of fruit flies), betrays all the earmarks of a woman on the verge of an affair, a divorce or a prescription for antidepressants. As soon as the two move into Jane's house, they start drifting apart. Sam loiters around a fellow resident (Natascha McElhone, brandishing an Israeli accent), while Alex starts dropping by Jane's recording studio, ostensibly to give her opinion on the band's new single.
In its milieu and parallel story lines, the film suggests a bantam "Short Cuts," but for better and for worse, this is Altman without the razored edge. Cholodenko elicits appealing performances from her ensemble, but she never pushes their characters anywhere there isn't an easy out. Sam and Alex are primed for change (they approach sex like engineers poring over blueprints), and Jane could easily rock their world if given a chance.
Unlike her son, she has followed her bliss, changing partners carelessly while staying true to her own self. Yet for all the story's free-range anger, repression and resentment, there remains something overly polite and safe about these characters. With the pointed exception of Jane, they suffer from that clichéd L.A. syndrome: They're too nice for a dark side.
That's too bad because there's a lot that's very fine about "Laurel Canyon." There wasn't a moment in the film that I didn't enjoy, but neither was there anything that got my mind or heart racing. Cholodenko is clearly talented but it's less clear whether she's afraid to push harder or whether this is as far as she can go. When her first feature "High Art" was released, most of the attention centered on its star, Ally Sheedy, but the real revelation was off to the side, with Patricia Clarkson's dyspeptic German addict. Cholodenko has a way with difficult women, and hands down the best part of "Laurel Canyon" is McDormand's sexy, tough performance, which creates a terrific gravitational pull. On paper, Jane comes across somewhat blurry, but in the actress' watchful eyes there are stories yet to be told. Maybe next time Cholodenko will tell them.
MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, language and drug use.
Times guidelines: Nudity, some kinky sexual entanglements and loads of pot smoking.
Frances McDormand ... Jane
Christian Bale ... Sam
Kate Beckinsale ... Alex
Natascha McElhone ... Sara
Alessandro Nivola ... Ian
A Sony Pictures Classics release in association with Good Machine International, an Antidote Films production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director-writer Lisa Cholodenko. Producers Susan A. Stover, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. Director of photography Wally Pfister. Production designer Catherine Hardwicke. Editor Amy E. Duddleston. Music supervisor Karyn Rachtman. Original score Craig Wedren. Costume designer Cindy Evans. Casting Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
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