Laurel Canyon July 18, 2016
Lisa Cholodenko likes to tamper with the constraints of routine. In 1998’s High Art, her heroine, played by Radha Mitchell, thinks her life and career are set until a chance meeting leads her to the realization that she might not know what she wants and who she is quite as well as she thinks. In 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, a stable, long-running marriage is thrown into a tizzy after an intentionally ignored family secret comes to light.
Laurel Canyon (2003), a mixed bag of an existential drama, concerns the individual plights of Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale), an engaged couple attempting to navigate adult life with graduate school finally behind them. Both stuffy and borderline neurotic, we meet the twosome just as they’re moving from the respectable Harvard scene to the crowded territory of Los Angeles. Sam is a psychiatrist who has found work at a prestigious hospital in the area; Alex, a genomics major, is working on her dissertation.
The couple is in the titular region, much to Sam’s disdain, because of his mother’s (Frances McDormand) living there. Previous planning suggested that they’d be able to live in one her vacant homes while looking for potential houses. But as the result of a last minute change, Sam’s mother, Jane, a legendary record producer, will remain at the quarters as they set up camp there. Since Sam and Jane’s relationship is practically estranged, since Alex is hopelessly aloof, and since Jane is mixing an LP and is having a fling with her focused upon band’s frontman (Alessandro Nivola), things are bound to get messy. Nocuous, too, is Alex’s increasing interest in Jane and company’s fuck-it lifestyle, and Sam’s attraction to a co-worker (Natascha McElhone).
Laurel Canyon is wise when it comes to its characters — Jane is so multi-layered that we feel as though we’ve known her for years, and Sam and Alex’s inner tug-of-wars are more than just a little palatable — but it’s underdeveloped in story, which is mostly slice-of-life in scope but otherwise intrinsically stagy instead of free flowing like it should. It wants to be a character study just as much as it wants to be a drama of acclaimed Off-Broadway distinction, and the indecisiveness makes it provocative but never quite involving.
But Cholodenko’s understanding of her characters is admirable in its subtle brushstrokes, and her actors are finely cast — McDormand, in particular, preternaturally redefines herself. And yet Laurel Canyon, like its lost protagonists, always seems to be searching for something, even if that something is persistently unknowable. Interesting, but sometimes drivel. C+