Laurel Canyon

One great thing about living in Los Angeles is being able to watch a movie called Laurel Canyon and then, walking out of the theatre, realize that you are just across the street from Laurel Canyon Blvd.

Anyway, writer/director Cholodenko made a name for herself with the acclaimed indie High Art back in 1998. This, her second feature, could be called "High Art Goes West". The concept is similar: ambitious girl falls in with an artsy older woman and her decadent hangers-on, then questions her own relationship with her dreary boyfriend. Here, though, instead of the drugged-out art scenesters of New York, we get to hang with the generally jollier, only mildly drugged-out rock stars of Los Angeles.

Frances McDormand is fine, as usual, as Jane, a fortysomething record producer who's had more lovers than most people have hair on their heads. Kate Beckinsale is Alex, the young square who falls under Jane's spell, and Christian Bale is Sam, Alex's uptight fiance, who would rather be as far away from all these degenerates as possible. Which is a little difficult, as Jane is Sam's mother and they are staying at her house/studio for a while as Sam adjusts to his new internship at a local hospital. Adding some spice to the mix are Jane's British pop star boyfriend (Alessando Nivola, convincing), who has a thing for Alex, and Sam's colleague Sara (Natasha McElhone), who has quite a thing for Sam herself.

Eschewing much of a story, Cholodenko centers the film around this love pentangle, and if the film has anything to say, it's about the slipperiness of attraction. Cholodenko is thankfully as unapologetic about Jane's fluid sexuality as Jane is, and that makes for a sexier film. She also once again proves herself adept at creating a whole "scene" - I was astonished at how real this environment felt; you could practically smell the trees around Jane's hillside home. I also dig Cholodenko's eccentric casting choices - the cast's three Brits (Beckinsale, Bale, McElhone) play a couple of Yanks and an Israeli, respectively, while the story's one Brit is played by an American.

So what's wrong with the film? Not much - other than the fact that few of the characters are even remotely likeable. Especially Bale's priggish whiner, who takes a long time to get used to. Admittedly, I'm no big fan of his, or of the usually wooden Beckinsale (slightly better here) or even of the nondescript McElhone, who I must say is a revelation as the shy but sexy Israeli intern. Eventually, by film's end, I'd gotten to know and like these characters, without feeling any sympathy for them. And despite Cholodenko's indie street cred, there is something a little too polished about the dialogue and camerawork of Laurel Canyon - it feels a bit Hollywood, even if its sexual politics are a bit more progressive.

That said, it's not a bad date movie, thanks to a couple of hot scenes and a general mellowness. Its open ending may frustrate some viewers (or at least make some wonder if a Laurel Canyon II is in the works), but I actually liked it, for punctuating the story's central idea that relationships are anything but tidy.