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Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon: “Listening Is Better Than Medicating”

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One of the great early Mad magazine spreads guessed at what was going to happen when the children of Beatniks rebelled against their parents–they’d get haircuts, dress conservatively, bring home perfect report cards. That’s the premise of Lisa Cholodenko’s new movie Laurel Canyon, starring Christian Bale as Sam, a Harvard Medical School graduate specializing in psychiatry who, having taken an internship in Los Angeles, accepts his mother’s offer to stay in her empty Laurel Canyon house. He and his even more tightly buttoned girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckinsale)–also a Harvard med grad, now working on a dissertation about the reproductive life of house flies–arrive at the house only to find that Sam’s mother Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful, progressive rock producer, is staying in the house with a band whose record has run into trouble with the label and whose lead singer, only a tad older than Sam and Alex, is Jane’s latest lover.

Laurel Canyon is a weirdly scruffy crevice of L.A., not visibly affected by the city’s yuppie upgrade in the ’80s and ’90s. The movie’s early tour of its unkempt lawns and rusty cars makes it clear that the Canyon is still the place Joni Mitchell was singing about in her song “Ladies of the Canyon” on the classic 1970 album of the same name. (Jane has a photo of herself with Mitchell hanging on the wall of the house.) When Sam and Alex walk in with their efficient rolling carry-on bags, Jane and the band are doing bong hits–Jane smokes pot the way Bette Davis used to smoke cigarettes, constantly–and after worrying about whether Alex will be able to get her thesis written with the band hanging out downstairs and recording in the studio down by the pool, and whether Sam will be able to tolerate staying in close quarters with a mother whose unconventional looseness makes him feel as if he’s being dragged back to the chaos of his childhood, the couple decides to stay, provisionally.

The movie shows us how exposure to the creative disorder of these rock artists operates on this couple whose ambitious severity (they play Scrabble competitively on the airplane west) has them fitted uncomfortably in an airless relationship. The subtlest aspect of the movie is its attention to how Sam and Alex conceal information from each other as they start opening up despite themselves to their new environment. Sam works at the hospital with an Israeli intern named Sara (Natascha McElhone), who begins flirting with him before they’ve even met. Soon he’s suggesting to Alex that they should move to North Hollywood, without telling her that’s where Sara lives. But while he’s at work all day, Alex becomes intrigued by Ian (Alessandro Nivola), the lead singer, who is openly into her. Once Sam starts carpooling with Sara, Alex can see what’s going on between them, and he can see her see it, but he doesn’t say anything and she seems to take this reticence as license to do a little experimentation of her own. She also protects her access to Ian and the studio by turning down a nice little house in North Hollywood that Sam sends her to check out, telling him falsely that it was already rented.

I think the movie’s style is meant to be objectively exploratory. Cholodenko, who wrote and directed, wants to see what happens to the young couple, to let their stories play out. At the same time, the storyline follows two contrary conventions. One is based in Sam’s dismay at his permanently adolescent mother, wreathed in clouds of potsmoke, wearing an AC/DC t-shirt, going from one lover to the next and always talking up the latest as the real thing. It’s the story of the child who has to grow up despite an equally or even more childish parent, familiar from such movies as The Champ (1931) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and, more recently, Mermaids (1990) and Slums of Beverly Hills (1998). The other, potentially even more cloying, convention shows how the eccentric older generation can loosen up the stiff youngsters, familiar from Auntie Mame (1958), The Matchmaker (1958), and Harold & Maude (1971). At the same time, with its rock-and-roll angle it resembles The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), in which a young, repressed couple take refuge in a house populated by oddballs and, rather than being destroyed (as the couple in Paul Schrader’s merciless Comfort of Strangers (1991) are), they’re liberated.

The liberation isn’t necessarily that clear. Cholodenko goes back and forth, and takes Alex in particular on some peculiar detours. Whereas Sam learns from Sara to listen to people (when she tells him, “Listening is better than medicating,” she’s referring to his psych patients, but the thought is one he needs to hear in general), and responds to her perpetual flirtation by saying that they should sublimate their attraction to each other (which she says is intellectual, dishonest, and unsatisfactory), Alex responds to Ian’s come-ons by getting in the pool with him and Jane and making out with both of them. You have to hand it to Cholodenko–having the young female protagonist cheat on her boyfriend with his mother’s boyfriend and his mother simultaneously is amusingly wicked for an American movie. In this case Cholodenko’s objectivity, which at times can seem like aimlessness, lack of a sure hand, inability to settle on a tone, keeps the sexcapades from selling themselves to us with hip prurience. And the morning after brings the funniest joke in the movie, when we see the newly bisexual Alex jogging in Jane’s AC/DC t-shirt.

The last scene makes it clear Cholodenko can’t end the movie, arguably because it’s about a process that by definition shouldn’t have a neat resolution. But It’s a problem that stems fundamentally from the fact that the movie isn’t purely a work of observation or purely a genre piece: it doesn’t have an internal or external narrative logic. And that’s not the only problem. Beckinsale makes Alex such a stick that we don’t know what Jane is talking about when she refers to Alex’s intuitions. And when those intuitions bring Alex out of her cocoon it isn’t as much of a pleasure for us as it might have been with a softer performance.

McDormand is getting the reviews, as often happens with the best known actor in a small independent movie. She can give highly stylized performances, but doesn’t seem like an exhibitionist, a flamboyant rock-and-roll lifestyler. We believe in her toughness as a producer, in her integrity when she resists the yuppie executive’s demand that they put out a single in time for Christmas. But McDormand is not about letting it all hang out, or any of it, really. (For all the toking, for instance, she never seems stoned.) As an actress she doesn’t give backstage passes. That’s why Marge in Fargo (1996) was the perfect role for her–Marge’s insides are the same as her outsides. She’s a perfect cop because immorality makes no sense to her so she can always spot it. The impact of the comedy came from the contrast between her squeaky cleanliness and the mess she was called on to investigate. An integral aspect of Cholodenko’s approach, both here and in her first feature High Art (1998), is not to ask us to get too attached to her independent lead female characters. (I think that’s why she makes them drug users, so we can’t approve of them.) With McDormand this comes a mite too easily.

Still, the movie has one unalloyed triumph. In the lead, the muscled-up Bale has never looked better, and even his stolidness works here because it gives Natascha McElhone something to play off, to tease. In The Truman Show (1998) and Solaris (2002) McElhone was used for her big eyes, capable of yearning beyond reality, beyond death. Those movies wanted us to see her as a Pre-Raphaelite figure but she verged on a Walter Keane waif. In Laurel Canyon she’s her own woman, unusually using her character’s Israeli accent for comic effect without turning her scenes into Saturday Night Live skits. (Cholodenko got the same mojo going for Patricia Clarkson as the former Fassbinder actress in High Art.) The Anglo-Irish McElhone lets the artificiality of playacting an Israeli vault her past inhibitions–the fun she’s having as a performer fuses with the fun Sara has coming on to poor, serious Sam. She’s spectacularly confident though without being at all brassy. This transplanted young woman brings her own quiet, tingly atmosphere with her–thinking of what it would be like to converge with her on the job gives off a static shock, funnier and more exciting for being believable. McDormand’s performance is also limited because she doesn’t have a big scene, but McElhone does. Her one-on-one with Sam in a parking garage, asking him not only whether he fantasizes about being with her, but what he fantasizes doing with her (“God is in the details,” the Great Man said), is a classic of impudent female forwardness–right up there with Barbara Stanwyck’s shipboard nestling with Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.

Laurel Canyon is not a perfect movie but it’s more humanly engaging in more unusual ways than anything else you’re likely to see at the mall. To judge from this movie and High Art, Cholodenko will never have an expansive style. (As a movie artist she’s more like Sam and Alex than Jane.) The term “entertainer” doesn’t really apply to her, but while she attentively recreates these ambiguous, anarchic artistic milieux as if for a thesis, she’s perfectly comfortable letting a few comedy bugs loose. You have to give her credit for bringing us McElhone’s performance, which is a testament to the outrageous pleasure the movies can provide.

You can find this review and a lot more besides at Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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