Just think of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thrown in with some existential burden and a cherry topping of conservatism and you have the makings of the new film “Laurel Canyon.”
The movie begins with recent Harvard medical grads Sam (Christian Bale) and his fiancŽe Alex (Kate Beckinsale) deciding to move from the East Coast to his childhood home, located in the delightfully bohemian world of Laurel Canyon, California. Sam is beginning his residency in a psychiatric unit and Alex is just about finished with her dissertation on the sexual reproduction of fruit flies. However, they are in for a major surprise when they discover that Sam’s mother Jane (Frances McDormand), a free-spirited record producer, is at home and producing a record with a pretentious young rock band. Naturally, everything changes as Sam confronts his hate for his pot-smoking hippie mother and her many questionable and messy relationships. It’s no surprise when Alex takes a liking to Sam’s mother as well as her rock band boyfriend. She sheds some of her traditional upper-class values, even partaking in a threesome. Sam too must deal with his attraction (gasp) for another beautiful woman at work, forming the basic dimensions of the film.
Frances McDormand plays the rebellious and disillusioned mother so well that each time there happened to be a scene without her, I found myself whispering, “Please, God, have some mercy and put her back on screen.” She holds the film and the story together. With lines like, “We could get some wine, some weed, some chicken,” and other semi-dramatic declarations to Alex like, “It either pulls you in or leaves you cold,” regarding the music she is producing with her pet project rock band, she definitely livens up the dry air. Everyone else is expendable. Actually, this film is in the same vein as “Almost Famous,” in which McDormand plays a more psychotic mother.
Perhaps this film aches for a little more originality in on-screen presentation. The story sounds great, but the actual direction at times becomes so painfully melodramatic that it left this Artsweek reviewer shaking her head. Sam can also be rather annoying. If you’re going to play the part of the pretentious conservative bore, at least play the part with a little bit of conviction. Yes, Bale is definitely a good-looking man, but his attempt at playing the recently-graduated-needs-a-mommy kind of guy made him look completely confused.
I did enjoy this movie, though, and not once did I check my watch. The magnetic energy from McDormand is definitely worth seeing. There are few good actresses who could play the layered and estranged mother so well. How cool would it be if at 50 you still had the looks, smarts and charisma (and maybe even the hash?) to carry that image off without a cringe from onlookers. McDormand does just that, causing everyone else to shrivel up in her wake.