Lisa Cholodenko previously delivered a film called High Art, which focused on a photographer and heroin addiction. That film garnered high praise, whereas with Laurel Canyon, most reviewers found flaws and some reasons to cheer in this “we've only just begun” revelation.
I agree, but there is still much of interest in this film set in a time when the academic year closes and graduations abound with commencement speakers and graduation parties. Laurel Canyon here resonates with those starting their life, and commencing on adventures like postgraduate training with a free house from mom in LA.
As the movie opens, Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are newlyweds, both graduating from Harvard, she at the top of the class, and he in hot pursuit in more ways than one.
Her dad counsels that Sam should have stayed in Boston for his psych residency, but we are sure that he merely wants to keep his precious over-achieving daughter in view rather than release her to this odd young man. He worries about subjecting her to the wilds and wiles of Los Angeles to finish her dissertation on “genomics” and the “determinants of sexual aggression in Drosophila melanogaster.” Heavy and very scientific, except they could have asked how to properly syllabicate the fancy words.
The film presents a story in contrasts. Frances McDormand, amazingly swerving from Marge Gunderson, her Oscar-winning performance from Fargo, to the too-good-to-be-true straight mom, Elaine Miller, in Almost Famous, now plays a dead-beat, free-spirited, lion-maned mom (to Sam), a recording mogul (Jane Bentley).
Hedonism and hippy-dippy excess are her forte, but somehow she had a male child who turns out to be her inverted mirror image. He is almost pious, with obsessive devotion to detail, and is meticulous, controlled, and straight.
Bales' portrayal seems accurate, but his facial expression seemed as if had recently had dental work and the anesthesia affected his motor function. The character loathes his mother's sensuality, and is appalled at her boyfriend, Ian (played by Alessandro Nivola), a Puckish character and a bit of a satyr.
Ian and Jane have no inhibitions and freely display their excesses, including drugs, tobacco use, and carnal intimacy. The two are a candle to the moth of Alex, dutifully continuing to write her thesis, but also attracted to the allure of the forbidden fruit they so freely display.
Meanwhile a medical resident, Natasha McElhone's Sara—purportedly an Israeli, but her accent seems more Eastern European—draws her bead on Sam.
Critics have bashed Beckinsale's performance and wondered if she had a “no-nudity” clause. I thought she was perfect for the role as a waif daughter of a Bostonian academic, hyper-achieving in medical school, and flirting with the unknown as she was taken off the straight and narrow inadvertently by her too-straight and too-narrow husband.
The nuanced and enjoyably devilish roles of Jane and Ian are fun, and another feather in the talented Ms. McDormand's headdress.
All in all, this combined with High Art compels me to keep an eye on Lisa Cholodenko as a director to watch.