Movie review, 'Laurel Canyon'

"Laurel Canyon" delves into the world of hipster artists, with all the accompanying ego, self-involvement and drama. In this, director Lisa Cholodenko's follow-up to her 1998 indie hit "High Art," she again introduces outsiders/innocents who are drawn to the artists' milieu like moths to a flame. But "Laurel Canyon" is lighter in look and tone than the downbeat, heroin-addicted world of "High Art."

An engaging, entertaining glimpse into the lives of musicians nestled in the titular Hollywood Hills enclave, "Laurel Canyon" is an ensemble piece built around a pair of buttoned-down medical school grads, Sam (Christian Bale) and fiancee Alex (Kate Beckinsale). They come to Los Angeles from the East Coast so that Sam can begin his residency at a mental hospital, while Alex finishes her dissertation on the reproductive habits of fruit flies.

They plan to stay at Sam's mother's vacant Laurel Canyon home, but when they arrive, Sam's chain-smoking, straight-talking hippie mother (Frances McDormand) informs them she'll be sticking around. She's producing an album by the alt-rockers who are also holed up in the house, which has become their recording studio. It's here that the film finds its groove, anchored by McDormand's magnetic performance.

The actress brings such spark to her characterization that in many ways she's better than the film itself, but that's just a quibble when a character is as sexy and lively as McDormand's Jane. "Laurel Canyon" draws its parallels a bit schematically. Jane is the sexually adventurous, free-spirited record producer with scads of integrity - a cross between Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde - while Alex and Sam are uptight, bookish and sheltered.

Sam and Alex drift apart as each is pulled into Jane's seductive net. While Sam is at the hospital, Alex takes a break from her research to cavort in the pool with Jane and her younger lover, band member Ian (Alessandro Nivola), and to smoke a bit of weed as the band struggles to finish its overdue CD. Sam meets an attractive fellow resident (Natascha McElhone) at the hospital and begins a serious flirtation. Sexual tension is everywhere, and Cholodenko uses it not for mere titillation, but to underscore the idea that art and artists fill deep voids in the world - they're just fun to be around. "Laurel Canyon" doesn't explore the dark and dangerous side of indulgence and life on the edge, as Cholodenko did in "High Art." Some may think the film suffers for that, but "Laurel Canyon" is far more joyous in its depiction of intimacy and the creative process.

This movie is reminiscent of Alison Anders' little-seen but likable "Sugar Town," a film also set in L.A. In "Laurel Canyon," Cholodenko has created a believable atmosphere, and it isn't easy to pull off without slipping into caricature of musicians and their lifestyles. Like her script for "High Art," the writing is both tart and humorous. Not only is the Brit-flavored, alt-rock soundtrack winning and authentic, but "Laurel Canyon" itself feels musical: languid, rich in color and light, and deliciously sensual.

3 stars (out of 4) "Laurel Canyon"
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko; written by Cholodenko; photographed by Wally Pfister; production designed by Catherine Hardwicke; edited by Amy E. Duddleston; music by Craig Wedren; Produced by Susan A. Stover, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, March 28. Running time: 1:43. MPAA rating: R (sexuality, language and drug use).
Jane - Frances McDormand
Sam - Christian Bale
Alex - Kate Beckinsale
Sara - Natascha McElhone
Ian - Alessandro Nivola

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