Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/19/04 w/ Additional Edits.
After the successful acclaim of 1998’s High Art, writer/director Lisa Cholodenko had officially arrived as part of the next wave of women filmmakers. High Art not only solidified her as an excellent filmmaker with great promise, but the film also helped raise Patricia Clarkson's profile and revive the career of Brat Pack actress Ally Sheedy. In 2002, Cholodenko finally returned with her sophomore effort Laurel Canyon. Though like High Art, the film’s plot about a young, intelligent woman seduced by the world of an older woman’s lifestyle is similar. The difference in Laurel Canyon is the film takes place in the bohemian Los Angeles where the young character is a grad-school student is being seduced by her fiancé’s mother and her rock n’ roll lifestyle with her young, immature boyfriend. Her fiancé meanwhile is finding himself attracted to his new hospital co-worker. With a cast led by Frances McDormand along with Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale, Natascha McElhone, and Alessandro Nivola. Laurel Canyon has the makings of an excellent film despite its shortcomings on the story and characters.
For the East Coast engaged couple of Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale), they seem to be ready for a new life away from the East Coast and from Alex’s parents (Dennis Howard and Catherine McGoohan). Alex’s father isn’t happy with the idea for the two moving to California to find a place but Sam needs to move to work for a hospital while Alex wants time to finish her dissertation for her medical studies in graduate school. Alex and Sam fly to California where they’ll stay in the home of Sam’s estranged mother Jane (Frances McDormand) who he hopes he doesn’t see for the week. Upon their arrival, they learn she is staying producing for a rock band led by a charismatic Brit named Ian (Alessandro Nivola). Sam learns that Jane has broken up with her boyfriend who is staying at her home in Malibu and is finishing up a new album. Sam ends up deciding to stay while Jane will give Alex some space for her work.
Sam leaves for work as he nearly crashes a car driven by a beautiful Israeli woman named Sara (Natascha McElhone) on his way to work, as he would later meet her in the hospital where she’s a resident working. Alex meanwhile, is working on her dissertation as she has a hard time being distracted by Jane, Ian, and his band. Alex later leaves to get food by jogging only to see Ian who picks her up while Sam is tending to help a kid named Wyatt (Rick Gonzalez) who is high on ecstasy. Life at Jane’s Laurel Canyon home is a bit hectic as Sam wonders if Alex is comfortable with the place and she insists, Jane or Ian isn’t bothering her though Sam is a bit uncomfortable with Jane’s close relationship with Ian. One day, Sara meets Alex as they talk about Alex’s dissertation that Sara finds all the work to be tedious as she decided to pick up Sam while Alex would leave to find a place.
Alex bored by her work and searching for a house begins to discover Jane’s world and finds herself drawn where Sam gets a bit bothered only to tend to find common ground with Sara on hospital research. Sam gets home to find Alex reading Spin magazine as he teases her for not reading the Harvard Review where he confronts his mother for drawing Alex into her world. Jane insists, Alex came on her own where one night when Sam and Sara are hanging out with other residents, she begins to get a bit wild with them in the pool where Jane and Ian are skinny-dipping on the pool. The night turns out to be a huge cloud where Sam, Jane, and Alex find themselves not sleeping. With Jane trying to finish a record away from her exec Claudia (Melissa De Sousa). Finally, the record is finished as Jane and Ian throw a party at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles where Alex engages in a striptease to Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s classic Bonnie & Clyde while Sam is finding himself attracted to Sara, as he would learn how far Alex has descended into his mother’s world.
While Lisa Cholodenko clearly knows how to tell a story with her smooth, dramatic directing style, the film’s problem lies in its script. While the characters of Jane, Ian, and Sara are interesting, Sam and Alex aren’t as interesting and in their development, only Alex becomes a bit more interesting. Plus, the tension between Sam and Jane isn’t fully known only that Jane admittedly is filled with guilt in not being a great mother though Sam’s feelings isn’t very clear on his mother. Plus, the ending comes off as a disappointment in the case for Sam where it seems whatever issues he has with everyone, isn’t fully resolved. Still, Cholodenko manages to bring interesting moments in the film plus with its references to rock that of course, many rock aficionados will enjoy, particularly the cameos of Barlow, Beck bassist Justin-Medel Johnson, Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, and famed U2/Bob Dylan producer Daniel Lanois.
If the film’s script is its major flaw, then the look of the film clearly flawless thanks to the colorful, lush cinematography of Wally Pfister helmed by the organic, wooden house of Jane from veteran production designer and Thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke. Another aspect that made Laurel Canyon worth watching is the film’s music with its atmospheric score from Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren to some of the original songs for Ian’s band written by Mark Linkous that are nice, rocking alt-pop stuff along with a great ballad all of the songs sung by Alessandro Nivola, who has a nice voice. The film’s soundtrack though is even better than the actual film with cuts from Mercury Rev, Clinic, The Butthole Surfers, Sparklehorse, and Elvis Costello along with classic stuff from Eartha Kitt, Serge Gainsbourg, Baxter Dury, Roxy Music, T-Rex, and Steely Dan. The soundtrack clearly is a highlight of the film as whom better to get in the mood to than with some obscure cuts from T-Rex and Roxy Music and striptease to Gainsbourg.
While the film’s cast an undoubtedly great group of actors, some just don’t fare well in their performances. While the smaller roles of Melissa De Sousa, Rick Gonzalez, and Gina Doctor as a naked mental patient are performed well along with the guys who plays Nivola’s bandmates, that included indie-rock icon Lou Barlow, Russell Pollard, and Imaad Wasif are fun to watch. The same couldn’t be said for the film’s leads since the supporting cast undoubtedly overshadows them. Christian Bale is an excellent actor but his character of Sam is pretty dull throughout the film except in scenes with Natascha McElhone. Bale doesn’t shine the same kind of chemistry with Kate Beckinsale since it lacks spark and any sense of excitement. Beckinsale though fares a bit better as she plays up to her sexy image in her scenes with Nivola and Frances McDormand. Though by the film’s end when she is confronted by Bale, her dramatic chops aren’t very convincing and come off in a bland way in the end though she tries her best to make her character interesting.
While it’s kind of a disappointing follow-up to High Art, Laurel Canyon is a fine film from Lisa Cholodenko thanks to Frances McDormand, Alessandro Nivola, Natascha McElhone and its soundtrack. Fans of Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale would best find other films as Bale is already on his way to be the next Batman though Beckinsale’s performance in Laurel Canyon is still better than the one she gave in the 2001 crap fest Pearl Harbor. While Laurel Canyon isn’t a strong film, it’s still got some fine moments while for music fans; the best thing to do is pick up the soundtrack. Watch Laurel Canyon for its performances from McDormand, Nivola, and McElhone.
Lisa Cholodenko Films: (High Art) - (Cavedweller) - (The Kids Are All Right)
(C) thevoid99 2011