Laurel Canyon (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One aspect that virtually assures a good motion picture is solid character development (sometimes referred to as a "character arc"). It doesn't matter if it's a mainstream movie or an offbeat indie - any narrative-based film benefits if the characters are not stuck in stasis (unless, of course, that's the point). The most extreme form of character development is the transformation - where an individual begins as one thing, and, by the end of the film, is someone completely different. This kind of dramatic character arc is the most difficult one to pull of successfully, and the easiest one to screw up. Usually, that occurs when characters are poorly-developed, situations are predictable, and relationships are presented half-baked. Such is the case with Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, the disappointing follow-up to the director's debut feature, the overrated High Art. Like the earlier movie, Laurel Canyon comes across pretty much as a pretentious soap opera - a movie that wants the audience to believe it has more to say about life than the usual melodrama. Unlike High Art, however, Laurel Canyon is not exceptionally well-acted (with one notable exception) and the characters are far less interesting (again, with one exception.)

The plot is straightforward and predictable to the point of painfulness. Recently graduated Harvard students Sam and Alex (Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, two Brits who have given up their accents for these parts) are moving to Los Angeles so he can do his residency at a local hospital and she can finish her doctoral dissertation on the sex lives of fruit flies. Their plan is to move into Sam's mother's house for a few weeks while they are house and/or apartment hunting. However, although Sam's mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer, is not supposed to be there, it turns out that she and her band are still struggling to finish their latest album. So Sam is treated to the embarrassment of introducing his fiancée to his "developmentally disabled" mother. At first, Alex is intimidated by Jane and her group of musicians. However, as the days go by, she finds herself increasingly attracted to them and their lifestyle. Meanwhile, an uptight Sam is drawn to another resident at the hospital where he works. The path all of this takes is easily divined, although the ending is not.

Why not? Because there is no ending, at least not in the traditional sense. Generally speaking, I have a fondness for open-ended movies, but there has to be a reason for the lack of closure. Aside from Cholodenko's ego, there doesn't appear to be one here. She simply elects to conclude the movie with all sorts of ends left dangling. Being artsy, it appears, takes precedence over being satisfying. The basic stagnancy of Laurel Canyon's storyline allows the only real surprises to come in some of the quick snippets of biting dialogue. Many of the conversations, while trite in nature, contain quotable one-liners.Cholodenko's skill with her characters' verbal agility is not in question.

The "lone exception" mentioned above is Frances McDormand. McDormand gives a delightfully loopy interpretation of Jane, the pot-smoking, sex-loving rock-and-roll mother who acts (and looks) years younger than she is. McDormand is a breath of fresh air amidst the obligatory performances given by Bale, Beckinsale, and Natascha McElhone. When McDormand is on screen lighting things up (and I'm not referring to a joint), it's almost possible to forget that she is marooned in a storyline that's not going anywhere interesting.

Laurel Canyon, like the three-way sex it hints at, is a tease. It's self-indulgent and sudsy, not to mention fundamentally dishonest. The characters seem like they're on marionette strings, with Cholodenko as the puppet master. To a certain extent, this is true of every motion picture, but it becomes bothersome when it's noticeable. Moments were few and far between during this film when I wasn't aware that I was watching a movie. And, with an absorption rate that poor, there's no way I can recommend Laurel Canyon. The characters (especially Alex's) may have arcs, but I didn't care where they began or ended - or even if they ended.

Laurel Canyon (United States, 2002)

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Frances McDormand, Alessandro Nivola, Natascha McElhone
Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Music: Craig Wedren
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2003-03-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1