Laurel Canyon
Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale


Laurel Canyon

Let me tell you my Laurel Canyon story. Many years ago, when I was a scruffy New York film director, I got the call to Hollywood to direct an ABC television show. I stayed with a friend who lived near the top of Laurel Canyon. Every night after the day's shoot I would drive up to my friend's house, passing on the way the home of my show's absolutely stunning guest star. And every night there would be a dozen cars parked in and around her driveway. What could they be doing there except having some kind of film-insiders' orgy, or at least a wickedly drug-ridden party? But as nice as she was, and she was, every day on the set, she never invited me to join in. Was I hurt? Yes, of course. After all, I was the director, and you don't just leave the director out of your orgy, not if you plan on working in that town again.

So on the last day of shooting, at the wrap party when it was already too late, I got up my courage and asked her about the gang that seemed to congregate at her house each night. "Oh," she said. "That's my Baha'i study group. I didn't think you'd be interested."

Yes, it was a letdown, but not nearly as much as Lisa Cholodenko's new film "Laurel Canyon," which she wrote as well as directed. The film is a compendium of clichés, a forced set of contrivances that are hardly believable even on first viewing. Frances McDormand is Jane, an aging rock music producer pushing 50, living in Laurel Canyon in a home that's also a recording studio. Her live-in boyfriend is Ian (Alessandro Nivola), a British singer who fronts a retro band, and is fifteen years younger than she.

Along come Jane's son Sam (Christian Bale) and his new fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale), to stay in the house for a while. The contrivances are awful. For example, between them Sam and Alex have about five more graduate degrees than the film's plot needs or can sustain. He is a psychiatrist, which is a little hard to take seriously unless his mother had him at age 12. Alex, meanwhile, holds an M.D. but is now completing her own doctoral dissertation on the reproductive biology of the fruit fly. This is a foolish piling-on of needless details that only clog up the film with wasteful scenes that add no depth to the cardboard characters.

Sam is ashamed of his hippie-like mother, who embarrasses him with her pot-smoking, active-sex-life ways. But Alex is intrigued with her and her work, and even with sexy Ian. Sam meanwhile is attracted to second-year psychiatric resident Sara (Natascha McElhone), the sexy Israeli. Will Sam or Alex violate their engagement vows? Will any or all of them end up in bed together? Would that they had; the closest anybody comes to doing something about it is an aborted three-way with Jane, Alex and Ian. Poor Sam is forced to walk away, no doubt aching with frustration, from a hot five minutes in Sara's car in the hospital garage.

With the exception of the sadly untalented Bale, who cannot find anything in his character except childish petulance, the cast does have its moments. McDormand, who ordinarily has better taste in roles but has been quoted as saying she wanted a chance to play a sexy woman, is in fact pretty sexy here, but has only a couple of chances to show it. Nivola and McElhone, as the plot devices on which the film turns, are each excellent, and poor Kate Beckinsale, in the most thankless part of all, manages to emerge nearly unscathed. But overall the film is a dreary collection of clichés that try, and mostly fail, to be titillating.