Laurel Canyon (2002) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, language and drug use
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Frances McDormand, Alessandro Nivola, Natascha McElhone
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko
Laurel Canyon made me feel like I was watching the pilot to some new "made for HBO" series, featuring the decadent portrayals of a Hollywood family -- their life, their loves, and their lessons learned. On that level, this would have made a very good premiere episode, due to credible acting and nice direction, and we would hope to see how the characters progressed as the season went on. However, as a stand-alone film, it's a bit more problematic. A couple moves to Hollywood, they have some dalliances and near-dalliances, and...well, that's really it. Not much of a plot, not much conflict resolution, and not much in message, Laurel Canyon is a soap opera with a twist, a turn, and then the credits roll. Two hours of foreplay without consummation.
Christian Bale (Shaft, Velvet Goldmine) and Kate Beckinsale (Serendipity, Pearl Harbor) star as Sam and Alex, who move out to Los Angeles after Sam lands a job in a psychiatric hospital. They stay in a house in Laurel Canyon, but Sam's stoner-rocker mother (McDormand, The Man Who Wasn't There) has already claimed the territory, but is willing to share. She is currently producing her boyfriend and his band's latest record, and while Sam is concerned his mother's behavior might turn off the normally reserved Alex, she actually finds attraction to the openness and indulgent ways of the musicians. Meanwhile, Sam has seduction problems of his own, in the form of a psychiatric intern (McElhone, Ronin) with a bit of a crush on him.
There's only one saving grace to this sensational drama, and that's the solid acting. Christian Bale is especially good at making his character fully three-dimensional in his dysfunctionality, and McDormand also adds complexity to a role that easily could have been rife with stereotype. Alessandro Nivola (Jurassic Park III, Best Laid Plans) applies the Brit accent like a native Englander, while Beckinsale does the same in turn playing the American. It's a very good cast, and although the film isn't a successful one in the end, from time to time the drama gains solidity, almost enough to make become something more.
Yet, for every forward step, it steps back again, never really going in any direction for long. For all of its attempts at gut-wrenching conflicts, at the end, we are left with the same characters in the same situations as when we started. There are a couple of titillating scenes involving threesomes, and lots of flirtations, meaningless and meaningful alike, but they do little to jump-start the story into a substantive experience.
If you are a huge fan of any of the stars of Laurel Canyon, you'll probably like this more than I did, as everyone is quite good in it. However, fans of good drama, or even just plain good movies, will probably be frustrated by all of the hoopla and little to celebrate. Bring on the TV series, and maybe we'll have something.
©2003 Vince Leo