Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 24, 2003 5:40 pm 
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Bohemian temptations

In "Laurel Canyon" Frances McDormand does a juicy turn as Jane, an aging but sexually active record producer, and Christian Bale is irresistibly handsome as Sam, Jane's intern son just out of Harvard Medical School. There are two lovely younger actresses also on hand, Kate Beckensale as Alex, Sam's fiancée, and Natasha McElhone as Sara, Sam's glamorous fellow psych intern. There's also a lively young Brit Jane's having an affair with called Ian. At least he seems to be a Brit. He certainly is lively.

With this attractive, interesting crew, it'd be silly to hate "Laurel Canyon." But the unresolved plot doesn't make much sense. Not, at least, till you realize the movie was directed by Lisa Cholodenko, who gave us "High Art" four years ago. The theme's essentially the same: a pure, innocent young women -- this time it's Alex -- is drawn into an artistic scene full of sex and drugs and is transformed. Both movies have the same weakness: the focus is all on the attraction of naughty creative people, and none of the plot crises get resolved.

In "High Art" the central character was a famous art photographer (nicely played by Ally Sheedy) who hasn't been productive for years. She has a lesbian love affair with a quiet young neighbor played by Radha Mitchell, and this union of innocence and experience goes so well it revives the photographer's career. But then the photographer suddenly dies, ending the movie, but not resolving it. "Lauren Canyon" has a similar arc. After a period of temptation and dalliance, some artistic work gets successfully accomplished, but the young people involved are left dangling and so are we.

Cholodenko provides a more complicated plot this time that includes sexual temptations not just for an innocent girl and an experienced woman (Alex and Jane), but also for the innocent girl's boyfriend Sam; the record producer's current flame Ian (Alessandro Nivola); and the beautiful Israeli intern (Natasha) who's drawn to Bale's character. The movie oscillates methodically between the music folks working on a record at Jane's Laurel Canyon mansion and Sam's straight efforts as an intern in the psych ward of a nearby hospital.

Sam and Alex have come to work in California and stay at his mom's house, not knowing that it would be so full of people and rife with opportunities to be naughty. The very obvious joke is that aging flower child Jane's world is hip and her young son's is square. The polarity is all too clear. And so are the temptations.

Sam and Alex didn't expect Jane to be supervising drug-y recording sessions in the Laurel Canyon house and at first both find it uncomfortable to be there. But then the uptight Alex starts being attracted to the musicians and Sam's feisty mom. Ian and Jane both welcome Alex to their work and play. The pull of the bohemian life is strong. Jane may drink too much champagne and smoke too much dope, but she's a famous and successful producer and she allows that for all her life's mistakes (especially her messy affairs with lots of musicians), ninety-nine percent of it's been a ball. Lucky her: her creative work is more like play, and though it may not seem very disciplined, her scene is quite productive.

One wonders, after these two movies, if Ms. Cholodenko really believes drugs are an essential part of creativity. Sam, who finds his mother embarrassing, doesn't seem to think so. But he's the square. He's off to the hospital early every morning, which he tells Jane is "real work."

Not so real after all, Sam's work, since it consists of very little other than flirting in the cafeteria and in cars with Sara and counseling a young Latino with adolescent drug problems and dramatic hair. Meanwhile Alex (Beckinsale) is getting even less done. She stays home with Jane and the band and steadily drifts away from her dissertation on fruit flies (drosophila, which the actress mispronounces), and toward the swimming pool or the recording studio, where she gets high with Jane and the musicians, airs her views on the songs they're recording, and flirts with both Jane and boyfriend Ian.

The paradox is that the champagne-swilling pot smokers are the only ones who're visibly getting anything done. Alex finds this way of spending her time so attractive that she pretends to Sam that she can't find an apartment for them to move to. The heck with fruit flies!

It's not clear whether Cholodenko really wants to make this contrast between productive dopers and ineffectual intern/researchers, or just doesn't know how to make the hospital and drosophila-research milieus seem real and worthwhile. The medical scenes stay at the level of a wan TV drama while the recording process is made relatively fresh and engaging, and toward the end of the movie Jane declares the record to be one of the best she's ever produced.

There's a powerful amount of accent-swapping in this movie: Bale does one of his skillful, if somewhat odd, American voices (he always seems a glamorous alien); the rather stiff Beckinsale does likewise; the equally British McElhone does a Bulgarian sounding Israeli; and Alessandro Nivola, who hales from Boston, does a down and dirty English accent.

McDormand alone gets to stick with her own American voice. She also gets to ditch the proper mom role she played in "Almost Famous" and show that she could perfectly well have gone on the road with her precocious journalist son. She's the queen bee here -- the most experienced actress and the most centered, powerful, and interesting character. Nivola, who's her much younger lover as well as the lead singer on the record, does a good job of keeping up.

Charismatic though he may be in his way, Bale doesn't seem to bring much intelligence to his interpretation of the thankless but central role of McDormand's disapproving son. Beckinsale only loosens up by -- partially -- removing her clothes; there's not much interior going on with this young lady.

When he catches Alex making out with both Ian and Jane, Sam gets in a tussle with Ian and accidentally boffs Jane in the kisser; but it never becomes clear whether Alex and Sam are going to stop messing around with other people or not. All that's certain is that the record came out well and that McDormand and her character had the most fun.

"High Art" was a lower-profile, smaller movie, and though in a sense it went nowhere either, there was that nice little lesbian romance at the center of it, and its New York bohemian scene was more intriguing than the Laurel Canyon/Chateau Marmont recording world of Cholodenko's new movie.

"Laurel Canyon" moves in the promising direction of social satire and romantic comedy, but doesn't handle its more complicated cast of characters with a sure enough touch. There's sufficient gloss to the music scene to draw you in -- Choldenko's at home with parties and drugged-out artistic people -- but the writer/director isn't adept enough at plot construction to develop the situation's potential for farce.

There's a really amusing story hiding here somewhere, no doubt one with Frances McDormand still in the foreground. But to make it work you'd have to think up a good ending and replace all the other principal actors except Nivola with some plainer looking but funnier, wittier ones.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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