It took a long time getting here, but one of the most entertaining movies of 2002, Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, is finally easing into Bay Area theaters. The sly, understated little gem of a comic character study has one of the best — but least heralded — performances of the year, by Frances McDormand. You are hereby advised to drop Joe Millionaire like a bad habit and spend some time with Jane and Ian and Sam and Alex and Sara instead.
It’s a story about how people get seduced by Los Angeles. That still happens, you know. At this late date, characters like Boston medical school grads Alex (Kate Beckinsale) and Sam (Christian Bale) still arrive in the land of talent agents, swimming pools, and the Chateau Marmont, and lose it completely. All those warnings by Woody Allen and Joan Didion and Billy Wilder and Charles Bukowski and James Ellroy don’t mean a thing when suddenly they get a whiff of that Santa Ana wind. Before you know it, they’re down on all fours.
At least that’s what we expect when studious Alex and her fiancé Sam, two doctors fresh out of med school, decide to relocate temporarily to Los Angeles so Sam can take his residency at a hospital there. Alex’s folks back in Boston are Ivy League snobs with clichéd prejudices (“Take care of her, Sam. We don’t want her joining the Scientologists. Or the vegetarians”), but Sam knows better. He grew up in the Angeleno fast lane with his mother Jane (Frances McDormand), a rock music producer. And yet knowing this, he’s arranged for both of them to move into Jane’s empty Laurel Canyon house, where Alex can work on her genomics Ph.D dissertation while Sam does his residency. They’ll have plenty of time and a nice quiet place to concentrate on their careers. Uh-huh. That’s what Jim Morrison’s roommate must have said.
First off, mom isn’t living down at her beach house after all. She gave it to her ex-boyfriend. She’s got a live-work thing going at her Laurel Canyon house with a band from England, and a live-stud thing with the band’s singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola). Sam groans when he sees the setup. He knows what this means: Steely Dan all night long, bongwater, “get some wine, some weed, some chicken,” sonic ooze, yodeling in the canyon. Dope, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll, same as it ever was.
Jane is a real piece of work, a rocky roller of the old school who’s still letting her freak flag fly. So what if her latest bed-buddy is the same age as her son? She looks terrific in leather jeans and takes no shit from record-company execs looking for a hit single for the holiday season. Jane does it her way, and she’s got a wall full of gold records to show for it. Nighttime at Jane’s place is a mellow smoke-and-swim party after a hard day’s work at her poolside recording studio. Jane’s a den-of-iniquity-mother who refuses to grow up. What could be more charming than that, or so frightening to her child? She has this shrug, this nod-and-wink, that completely disarms everyone on screen and in the audience — except for Sam, of course. He’s the straight man of the piece, dutifully getting up early and reporting to the hospital, where we see him helping a troubled young drug user and getting acquainted with a gorgeous fellow resident, Sara (Natascha McElhone). So the question becomes: Who’s going to tumble first, Sam or Alex?
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko is from LA herself, and shows us around nimbly, with a minimum of caricature (aside from McDormand’s grandiosely stoned Jane) and some very fine dialogue. Laurel Canyon is filled to its rim with sex. The picture opens with Sam giving Alex head under the covers in their Cambridge flat, and seemingly everyone in the film other than Sam and Alex is aggressively on the make, especially horndog rocker Ian and smoldering doctor-babe Sara (“I wonder how you taste”). Alex is naturally curious about all this California creaming. “When did you start reading Spin magazine?” Sam asks Alex in bed soon after they arrive. About the time she started going for midnight swims with Jane and Ian, that’s when. Beckinsale’s Alex, with her winsome manner and academic reserve, is the perfect foil for Jane and Ian’s roguish horseplay. In a cruder screenplay, Alex’s seduction would be accomplished with much leering all around. Meanwhile, Bale’s apprehension amid the general unrestrained wooziness suits his chilly demeanor. We can’t help remembering his murderous characters in American Psycho and John Singleton’s Shaft; in our mind, there’s always the possibility Sam might snap. But Cholodenko is subtler than that. She’s after bigger victories.
The casting games add to the merriment. Bale and Beckinsale, both English, portray Americans, with the flawless accents we have come to expect from British thesps. Nivola, an American, plays British (“I know, I know, it’s my fote”). And McElhone, a native Brit, goes through the film with a thick Israeli accent.
That leaves McDormand in the all-American center of the action, the Fargo-Mississippi Burning-Blood Simple-Lone Star-Short Cuts middle-of-the-road earth mama of the Baby Boom. Making peace with who we are and where we come from is the big payoff in this tidy, well-constructed comedy of manners. That impulse is crystallized in the scene in which Sam, exhausted from the demands of being a doctor and trying to parent his mother as well as his fiancée, gives in and idly, unselfconsciously touches Jane’s toes as they sit by the pool. It’s a bit of physical acting that speaks louder than any of the playful lines before it. Contrary to all his carefully laid plans, Sam has finally come home. Another one bites the dust.