Laurel Canyon is a movie as meandering as the roads its characters drive down, incorrectly presuming its indie-film status must give it a free pass from its dog-eared plot of the hippies healing the yuppies.
The film does have some witty one-liners and a cast that’s obviously working harder than the material. But writer-director Lisa Cholodenko tosses in tediously abstract discussions about love, desire, music and psychology, as though that would somehow not make the film play like a well-tested studio concoction. In that regard, it’s like Meet the Parents by way of Almost Famous.
Its connection with Almost Famous, though, is its best one, in that it features yet another stellar performance by Frances McDormand, this time playing a mom on the other side of the rock ‘n’ roll fence. Combining her typical sassy charm with a potent combination of sexuality and vulnerability, McDormand is the only genuine article in a movie that otherwise has an artificial reek.
She plays Jane, a record producer who owns a home in the upscale Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles. Of course, she’s not supposed to be there, at least when her psychiatry-graduate son, Sam, (Christian Bale) and his doctorate-pursuing fiancée, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), arrive.
Having moved there to pursue his residency, Sam expects the house to be a quiet, temporary place to stay. He finds his mother struggling to finish a record for a band fronted by her new British boy toy (a witty Alessandro Nivola) and holding lots of loud, pot-infused pool parties in the process.
As Sam struggles with work and attraction to another intern (Natascha McElhone), Alex ditches her dissertation on fruit fly mating to smoke weed in the studio with Jane and the band. Will Sam and Alex’s prim-and-proper academic love be tested by the wily, free-spirited rockers? I wonder.
Cholodenko’s direction is sloppy from the start, framing the respective tempters in shots so lingering as to inspire eye rolling. She cuts back to scenes that seemed to already be over. And although the film has a hazy, intriguing look, it gets bogged down in blustery, awful dialogue (e.g., “We just hadn’t planned on a change of plan” and “You’re lucky … you can control your heart.”).
While it’s fun to see the normally stoic Bale in a neurotic turn and Nivola spouting hilarious throwaway lines, Laurel Canyon lacks a certain something — realism.
Of all the relationships in the movie, only Jane and Sam’s as mother and son connects. While an early poolside confrontation between the two is naturally uneasy, a heart-to-heart later is simplistic and touching. Plus, McDormand is absolutely sublime in a climactic scene where the unsettling tension is getting under her skin.
Were it not for her remembrance that for all her character’s free spirit, she’s still a mother, Laurel Canyon would be an outright disaster. Somewhere, there’s an interesting movie to be made that wraps the human condition in with music, psychiatry and fruit fly mating patterns. This isn’t it.