Laurel Canyon gets off to a shaky start. Absurdly artificial characters at a posh college graduation foretell a long, painful movie, in spite of a promising cast.
Luckily, the most implausible characters turn out to have been unimportant, and the remaining characters start to flesh out into real human beings.
R for sex, nudity
Alex and Sam (Kate Beckinsale and Christian Bale) are a promising young couple. Alex already has her M.D. and is working on her Ph.D. Sam is a psychiatrist who is just starting his first year of residency.
They travel to California where Sam can begin his work and Alex and finish her dissertation. They plan to stay in his mom’s vacant house in Laurel Canyon outside of L.A. Once they’ve settled into their work, they’ll find their own apartment and get married.
The Monkey Wrench
They arrive in Laurel Canyon to find that Sam’s mom Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer, is still living in the house, working on her latest album with the band in the recording studio downstairs.
The biggest distraction isn’t the rock band in the basement, it’s Sam’s mother. Sam hates her and her way of life (she combines elements of aging hippie and aging groupie). In fact when he walks in the door, his mother is smoking pot with the band.
Sam deliberately chose a life much more straight-laced, and he hates that his picture-perfect girlfriend has to be subjected to Jane. But Alex, who is as straight-laced as Sam, is not horrified. In fact, she’s never met anyone like Jane, and she’s kind of curious about the rock and roll lifestyle, which has never been available to her before now.
Sam and Alex’s different views of the Laurel Canyon house drive a wedge between them, and each seeks comfort in the arms of another. Sam flirts with another resident at the hospital named Sara (Natascha McElhone). His extracurricular activity seems pretty tame compared to Alex, who flirts with the lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola), who is Jane’s boyfriend. A little wine, a little pot, and a dark, warm pool are all it takes for Alex to drop her inhibitions.
It’s easy to sympathize with Sam, who hasn’t carried his own infidelity so far, until he sits in a car with Sara and they talk about what sort of sex they’d like to have with each other. Nothing “happens,” although their verbal tryst is deeply intimate and just as shocking as if something had “happened.”
Best and Worst
One of the best things about Laurel Canyon is the multi-layered ending. These characters whom we’ve come to know and like pull back from the abyss. They each decide not to give in to a romance that could destroy another bond. Before long, everything is back to “normal,” and the movie has what could have been seen as a “happy” ending, especially if this were a sitcom.
But so much has changed within each character that even though everyone is back to behaving normally, the situation is not the same as it was before, and the new “normal” is probably not going to last. To an outsider, they appear to have a pleasant illusion that they are back where they started, but to each of them, and to us, nothing is the same.
The worst thing about Laurel Canyon is that at first it appears to be peopled only with caricatures. The characters are written as types — Alex is so smart she’s getting two doctorates before turning 25; Jane’s lifestyle is nothing more than sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Worst of all are Sam and Alex’s parents, some of the first characters we meet. All they can talk about is their wealth and social standing; they’re about as real as Monopoly.
But even if Cholodenko didn’t write good characters, she is able to draw great performances from the whole cast. Laurel Canyon takes a little time to get going, but eventually we begin to care about the people who live there.