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"The film does a great job exploring the complications around intimacy."
"Introduces fresh characters, punchy dialogue, and interesting situations without revealing too much or resolving anything."
Laurel Canyon  


Jane: Frances McDormand
Sam: Christian Bale
Alex: Kate Beckinsale
Sara: Natascha McElhone
Ian: Alessandro Nivola
Review April 2003

Laurel Canyon is a street in Hollywood Hills on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Sandwiched between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, it acts as a home to many musicians, record executives, artists, and actors. It is home to Jane, a successful record producer, who is visited by her son and her son's fianc?. And it is here where lives change, tension unravels, and choices are made.

Both Sam and Alex are recent Harvard Medical School graduates. Sam is focusing on psychiatry while Alex is working toward her dissertation on the reproductive nature of fruit flies. The two elect to move to Los Angeles, where Sam's mother Jane owns several homes, one on Laurel Canyon and one on the beach. The plan was that while Jane stayed on the beach, Sam would work on his residency and Alex would complete her dissertation, the two staying at Jane's home on Laurel Canyon.

Upon their arrival in Hollywood Hills, however, the two are surprised to see the house occupied. There has been a change of plan. Jane had a recent falling out with her ex-boyfriend and gave him the beach property. To complicate matters, she is still living on Laurel Canyon, seeing another man (Ian), and trying to finish producing a record from Ian's band. Despite the change of events, Sam and Alex reluctantly agree to stay in the house until they can find another place to stay. But once moved in, their tightly kept lives begin to fall apart.

Sam is pursued by a sensuous medical resident (Sara) while Alex is pulled into the hedonistic lifestyle of Jane and Ian. As the two explore their new relationships and inner selves, they become more emotional and free from their own naivet? and idealism. All of these events have the potential to either make them stronger or break them apart.

The film does a great job exploring the complications around intimacy. Each of the characters changes in a way that is enlightening, whether significantly or subtly. Most substantial is Alex, portrayed by Kate Beckinsale, who is an innocent, pampered little girl working on her thesis. In the bohemian environment of Jane's Laurel Canyon home, she goes from recluse to outgoing. Christian Bale's Sam character also loosens up, but not as much. Knowing his Mom's outrageous behavior, he grinds his teeth, but finds solace in some tender moments with a fellow medical resident. And his actions are not stereotypical. Lastly, Jane (McDormand) is more or less a hippie, living each day by the moment. Her life is chaos and she knows it. As things start to come undone, she comes to the rescue, coming to terms with her actions and the implications on those she loves.

Frances McDormand is a phenomenal actress, with an uncanny ability to create highly memorable characters, from the lovable Marge Gunderson in "Fargo" to the cold, hard-drinking Doris Crane in "The Man Who Wasn't There." In "Laurel Canyon," McDormand undergoes yet another transformation. This time, she creates a character that is the antithesis of her role as Elaine Miller in "Almost Famous," an overprotective, strict mother with a distrust of rock and roll. Ironically, here she plays a record producer who trusts rock and roll to the point that it almost engulfs her - the drugs, wild parties, and free spirited sex. She creates a character that is so intelligent and so ballsy that all of the guys would love to be with her. Even more so than Alex. It's brilliant. In 'Famous, she would be designated by Lester Bangs as one of the cool people that everyone elevates to.<\td>

Much like Lisa Cholodenko's previous work, "High Art," this film is melodramatic, has great acting, and honest relationships, but lacks a fulfilling story. There is no beginning, middle, or end. It's more like 103 minutes of middle. There is very little action, very little drama. We do not expect all of the loose ends to tie neatly in a bow at the end, but having too many loose ends leaves one unsatisfied. Sam reconnects with Sara in the end hinting that there may still be a mutual interest, Alex's dissertation is still on hiatus, the two are still unsure whether to stay with Jane or find an apartment, and Alex remains tempted by the unique west coast lifestyle of Ian, Jane, and the whole music thing. There is very little closure.

"Laurel Canyon" lends itself to being a soap opera of sorts. It introduces fresh characters, punchy dialogue, and interesting situations without revealing too much or resolving anything. Despite a great ensemble of actors, it will leave you hanging from a cliff. Or in this case, hanging off the precipice of a canyon.

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