When you see a glamorous movie star like Kate Beckinsale tying her hair back and wearing glasses, it's surefire shorthand that she's an uptight soul. Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko gives a couple of even more obvious clues in her second feature film, Laurel Canyon. Kate, as medical grad student Alex, also gets huffy when someone translates the theme of her upcoming dissertation on Drosophila genomics into plain English, i.e., the sex life of fruit flies. That, and she keeps her shirt on while having sex.
Along with the repressed chick generally comes the idea that by movie's end she'll have loosened up, let her hair down, and switched to contacts, often as a result of receiving sex from a free-spirited soul. Yet Alex's fiancée Sam (Christian Bale) is even more uptight than she is. His excuse is his upbringing. We never hear about Dad, but Mom (played by Frances McDormand) -- or Jane, as her son insists on addressing her -- is a wild and crazy free spirit, an executive with a record label. So, when Alex and Sam head for L.A. to stay at Jane's "empty" pad while Sam pursues his studies at a mental hospital, craziness ensues when it turns out that Jane's still in the house, along with the band she's working with, fronted by British rocker Ian (Allesandro Nivola) and backed up by members of Folk Implosion. And boy, do they like to party!
Cholodenko's mining some familiar ground here. Her first feature, High Art, dealt similarly with tensions between the sterile world of competitive employment and the wild arts scene. Specifically, the tendency of those tensions to strain relationships and tempt people toward new loves and even new sexual orientations. The major change this time out is the geography -- L.A. as opposed to New York -- and that affects the film's dynamic, but not necessarily the way that it should. Maybe it's that Cholodenko's loath to be too critical of another town, but Laurel Canyon lacks the sense of risk that High Art had, and thus emasculates Sam, its apparent protagonist.
Now, anyone who's ever had a wild and crazy mother probably resents the lack of stability it brings, but if we don't see the damage being done -- or even get some decent hints -- it's hard to assess. Jane comes off as a purely fun person to be around, while Sam looks like a bastard for constantly aiming cutting, passive-aggressive remarks in her direction. The point, perhaps, is that Sam has to get worse before he can get better. The preferred method for putting him through the wringer is of course sexual temptation, which arrives for Sam in the form of Natascha McElhone.
"But what about the lesbians?" the Cholodenko fan may ask. "Even her short films have lesbians; does this one?" Relax. How does a potential threesome sound? For it turns out that Alex's temptation will not merely be Anglo-accented Ian, but also Ian's paramour -- Jane. Viewers who think of Frances McDormand as merely a comical figure from the likes of Fargo will have their eyes opened here, as we see a side (and a bare front) of her that's normally reserved for Joel Coen's eyes only.