Laurel Canyon

Laurel-Canyon-2003-Frances-McDormand-pic-7Jane (Frances McDormand), a California record producer who’s hung out with most of the greats, has a theory about pop music: “Either it pulls you in or it leaves you cold.” The highly intelligent and enjoyable indie film Laurel Canyon may leave some people cold — it is, after all, about the pains and problems of the well-off — but it pulled me in with its friendly, inclusive, nonjudgmental appraisal of human nature. Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous film was 1998’s High Art, likes to poke around in the psyches of creative people (or their hangers-on) and see what happens; here, she adds some rather uncomfortable almost-familial infidelity to the mix.

Jane is a proudly unreconstructed flower child, endlessly getting high with the guys whose album she’s producing, and flirting with a longer-lasting-than-usual relationship with one of them, lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola). “We have a deep connection,” she explains to her grown son Sam (Christian Bale), a Harvard Med graduate interning at a psych ward. Sam’s heard this before; he counters with the names of various partners (male and female) Jane has been deeply connected with in the past. Yeah, but Ian is different, perhaps starting with the fact that he’s sixteen years younger than she is.

Sam is staying in his mother’s house with his girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who dutifully toils on her dissertation on the reproductive habits of fruit flies while Ian’s band blares in Jane’s nearby home studio. Sam finds Jane “embarrassing,” even attempting to pass her off as “mentally undeveloped,” but you sense a childhood full of hectic fun times that Sam needed to escape. He and Alex are supposed to be looking at apartments, but Alex, who takes a liking to Jane, doesn’t seem to be hunting too hard; neither does Sam, who lingers too long in the car with alluring fellow resident Sara (Natascha McElhone), who’s been giving him rides to work and seems to want other rides with him.

Frances McDormand cheerfully turns Jane into the polar opposite of the forbidding, anti-drug mom she played in Almost Famous; the two performances function as bookends. (Yet both mothers ultimately let their sons go off to become their own persons, and would probably get along with each other on that basis.) Jane’s relationship with Sam (played by Bale with flustered decency) is by far the most intriguing aspect of the movie. There’s a rather poignant snapshot of her cuddling Sam as a serious-faced little boy, perhaps already a seasoned veteran of his mom’s excesses. You feel that Jane would like Sam to loosen up a bit, but also needs him just as he is; she has produced a self-reliant son, too straight for his own good, yet honestly who he is. The two actors weave a fine thread of mutually exasperated respect and love.

When Alex begins to enjoy Jane’s company a bit too much — expressing some of the wildness she’s repressed for too long — Laurel Canyon takes an uneasy turn but plays it mostly for erotic comedy. A son’s worst nightmare — your girlfriend making out with your mom — is hinted at but not explored; Cholodenko rightly senses that this would derail the movie’s emphasis, which is on life’s dissatisfactions rather than on sex. This writer-director, like the similar Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing), allows her smart characters to act stupidly but doesn’t punish or scorn them for it. Laurel Canyon is an easygoing study of different kinds of foolishness, relaxing into human flaws and coming up with something that feels fresh.

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