Laurel Canyon will initially lure you in with its carefree style, its cinematic appeal and its potent sexiness. But what at first glance appears to be a lazy little character drama in a laid-back Southern California setting turns out to be a deeply involved coming-of-age story that examines all the weighty aspects of fidelity and adult commitments. Fortunately, writer/director Lisa Cholodenko never lets the film become heavy-handed or overly tedious. Like the clandestine history of the titular enclave, Laurel Canyon is satisfied with being a little dangerous, a bit unconventional and very seductive.
Supporting this tale of sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and infidelity is the phenomenal performance of Frances McDormand. She plays Jane, a veteran record producer who has a love/hate relationship with her conservative son Sam (Christian Bale), a recent Harvard medical school grad. Sam recently moved to L.A. with his fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale) to complete his residency, only to find that his Mom is still residing and producing records in the house that she promised would be unoccupied. Sam is also surprised to discover that his mom is dating the much younger singer (Alessandro Nivola) of a rock band. Humiliated by his free-spirited mom, Sam apologizes to Alex and promises to find a nearby apartment to avoid being subjected to his mom's bohemian lifestyle.
Raised in the traveling rock band scene, Sam tries to be the moral compass of the family that he never experienced as a child. Despite her successful career, Sam views his mother's brash honesty and sexual openness as an embarrassment. In attempting to shield Alex from his mother, he inadvertently causes Alex to be lured by the siren song of a lifestyle that deliciously clashes with her conservative upbringing and Harvard education. Soon Alex is smoking dope with the band, reading Spin magazine, and dabbling in steamy threesomes.
The most appealing aspect of Laurel Canyon is watching Frances McDormand ply her craft. This is the finest performance of her career as she immerses herself into the role of a complex character trying to balance her maternal instincts with her carnal desires. Her uninhibited sexuality as it contrasts with Alex's sexual innocence bears the same forbidden attraction displayed my Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
Cholodenko's choice to close with an open ending is, at first, a bit frustrating. But upon further examination it seems highly appropriate to challenge the viewer with the same tough adult decisions that tempt the characters. We are forced to draw from our own morals and principles to arrive at a conclusion as it might apply to what we learned about the characters.
A mesmerizing soundtrack featuring many of the songs of Sparklehorse, but sung surprisingly well by Nivola, is a nice addition that makes Laurel Canyon a cinematic treat for all the senses.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for sexuality, language and drug use.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.