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    Laurel Canyon

    Not resting on their laurels

    Lisa Cholodenko's "Laurel Canyon" could have turned into a predictable dysfunctional-family melodrama but it stays fresh and original, with help from the typically vibrant Frances McDormand.


    Sam, a recent Harvard psychiatry grad and his fiancˇe Alex (who's currently writing her thesis on the sex life of flies, aka genomics) move to Los Angeles from the east coast for Sam's internship and into the house owned by Sam's mother, Jane, in the winding, affluent neighborhood of Laurel Canyon.

    Written and directed by: Lisa Cholodenko.
    Cast: Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola, Lou Barlow, Russell Pollard, Imaad Wasif.
    Cinematography: Wally Pfister.
    Music by: Mark Linkous, Craig Wedren.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    The only thing is, Jane hasn't exactly vacated the premises yet, and soon enough (and somewhat against their will) Sam and Alex become embroiled in Jane's hedonistic world of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (literally, since Jane is a record producer with a live-in band fronted by her latest work in progress, Ian). As tensions rise, straight-laced Sam finds himself distracted by a sensual intern (played by Natascha McElhone) while the uptight Alex is similarly drawn to both Ian and Jane.

    In anyone else's hands this film might have been a disaster, a cringe-worthy amalgam of familial dysfunction, sexual exploits, and big, predictable moments that hang around like three-day-old helium balloons. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art"), on the other hand, infuses her oft-told tale with insight, freshness, and a certain peculiarity, populating it with actors that get well inside their characters and walk around them for days.

    Laurel Canyon  
    Christian Bale ("American Psycho") and Kate Beckinsale ("Serendipity") play the likable Sam and Alex. They don't quite cut it during their climactic head-to-head but otherwise theirs are confident, engaged performances. Alessandro Nivola ("Mansfield Park") is equally solid as British popster Ian McKnight.

    But as you might expect, Frances McDormand is the true find here. Well, she's not exactly a find since she's been churning out quality work ever since her debut in the Cohen Brothers' "Blood Simple" and she's not exactly a revelation either since she's long since exposed her talent to us. But McDormand is pretty much perfect in "Laurel Canyon"; she's a tower of strength as a carefree, career-minded 40-year-old who hasn't quite figured out what it means to be a mother.

    "Laurel Canyon" is purposefully written and delicately structured. It classily sidesteps clichˇs and balances scenes of true drama with intriguing, smaller moments. It never falls prey to its dicey subject matter, avoiding stock situations and world-weary characterizations. Heck, even the songs Nivola's character sings sound like genuine contenders. "Laurel Canyon" is a keeper.

    JULY 15, 2003

    Reader comments on Laurel Canyon:

  • Good job Kate Beckinsale   from Ryan, May 17, 2004
  • Laurel Canyon   from moviewatcherman, Jan 2, 2005
  • Wow   from Ray, Feb 3, 2005

  • Post a comment on "Laurel Canyon"