When you see a glamorous movie star like Kate Beckinsale tying back her hair and wearing glasses, it’s surefire shorthand that she’s an uptight soul. But just in case you aren’t familiar with all the usual signals, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko gives a couple of even more obvious ones in her second feature, Laurel Canyon. As medical grad student Alex, Beckinsale not only bears the standard hallmarks but also gets huffy when someone translates the theme of her dissertation on drosophila genomics (the sex life of fruit flies) into plain English. And she keeps her shirt on while having sex.
Alex’s fiancé, Sam (Christian Bale), is even more uptight than she is — hell, he’s more tightly wound than Bale’s character in American Psycho. Alex’s excuse is her snobbish Cambridge upbringing, but Sam’s is the opposite. We never hear about Dad, but Mom — or Jane (Frances McDormand, in an ironic reversal from her Almost Famous role), as her son insists on addressing her — is a wild and crazy executive at a record label. Alex and Sam head for L.A. to stay at Jane’s “empty” pad while Sam continues his studies at a mental hospital, but craziness ensues when it turns out that Jane is still in the house — along with a band (played by members of Folk Implosion) fronted by British rocker Ian (Allesandro Nivola). And boy, do they like to party!
Cholodenko’s first feature, High Art, dealt similarly with tensions between the sterile world of competitive employment and the decadent arts scene. The major change this time is the geography — L.A. as opposed to New York — which affects the film’s dynamic, but not necessarily in the way it should. Maybe Cholodenko is more familiar with New York and loath to be too critical of another town, but Laurel Canyon lacks High Art‘s sense of risk and, as a result, ends up emasculating Sam, its apparent protagonist.
Anyone who’s ever had a wild and crazy mother probably resents the lack of stability that brings, but Jane comes off merely as a fun person to be around, and Sam looks like a bastard for constantly aiming cutting remarks at her. Whereas High Art clearly showed the dangers of the party scene with an overdose or two, Jane and friends never do much more than booze and pot, and they deliver their album more or less on time. So what’s the problem?
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 our old friend sexual temptation, which for Sam arrives with a fake accent in the form of Natascha McElhone. Come to think of it, all the principals but McDormand use fake accents — Brits Bale and Beckinsale do American, and Boston-born Nivola does English. All except McElhone sound fine.
“But what about the lesbians?” the Cholodenko fan may ask. Relax. How does a potential threesome sound? It turns out that Alex’s temptation will not merely be Ian but also Ian’s paramour … Jane. Anyone who thinks of Frances McDormand as a comical figure from the likes of Fargo will have his eyes opened here; we see a side (and a bare front) of her that’s normally for Joel Coen’s eyes only.
Cholodenko seems as fond of the blatant tit shot as Joel Silver, but Beckinsale has clearly signed a no-nudity contract. Not that every actress need get naked, but a skinny-dipping sequence and a striptease scene, both involving Beckinsale, feature her in unrevealing underwear, a fact that the other characters seem to ignore. Her clothing sticks out in scenes where it shouldn’t. She does eventually lose the glasses, but she should have lost a good deal more.