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Laurel Canyon   C+

Sony Pictures Classics

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Writer: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola.

Review by Sean O'Connell

Kate Beckinsale is a looker who's gradually transforming herself into a respectable actress. Frances McDormand is a respectable actress who occasionally dresses down to play a looker. Why, then, can't these two talents elevate Laurel Canyon beyond mediocrity?

In Canyon, straight-laced Sam (Christian Bale) and his conservative fiancée, Alex (Beckinsale), crash the Los Angeles abode of Sam's bohemian mother, Jane (McDormand), while he completes a residency at a top-notch mental facility. Jane's a record producer whose house drips with music industry debauchery. Before long, Alex finds herself abandoning her dissertation and drifting into Jane's liberated world.

As Alex reenacts the decline of western civilization, Sam flirts haphazardly with second-year resident Sara (Natascha McElhone). But pairing a rigid Bale with a monotone McElhone is a grave mistake Laurel Canyon never overcomes. Styrofoam packing chips and cardboard boxes generate more electricity than these two stars.

Instead, the real tension hovers between Beckinsale and McDormand, with the veteran actress securing the meatier role. Jane has survived the free love era, emerging with a world of wisdom stashed behind her eyes. With vocal inflections and a caring glance, McDormand rescues the mother-son dynamic that twists through Canyon like the famed Mulholland Drive.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko skated to the edge of the independent scene in 1998 with High Art, another film that explored the unleashing of one's sexual inhibitions by an artistic mentor. Laurel Canyon inches ever further, but struggles to make its point. When faced with choosing between the decadence of rock and roll and a dissertation on the mating rituals of fruit flies, Alex chooses the former. A better movie might have asked, "Who wouldn't?"

Review published 05.28.2003.

* * *

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