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With: Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola
Written by: Lisa Cholodenko
Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, language and drug use
Running Time: 103
Date: 05/18/2002

Laurel Canyon (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Strained 'Canyon'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon works for about 20 minutes, until you realize that it has already laid its cards on the table and there will be no surprises left for the remaining 90 minutes. And even then, it suffers from Hollywood Disease. Everything takes place in a safe, protective bubble. Not one scene feels genuine or spontaneous, and there's no sign of the real world anywhere in sight.

Case in point: In one scene, our heroes, uptight scholar Alex (Kate Beckinsale) and psychiatrist-in-training Sam (Christian Bale) -- both Harvard grads -- go grocery shopping. While they shop, they talk. Because their conversation is not terribly interesting, the only thing to focus on is their hands as they randomly pick up and put down various products. You can almost hear the director yelling out brand names for them to read. The scene plays absolutely nothing like real people shopping; it reminded me of the time George Bush Sr. visited a supermarket during his presidency and seemed genuinely dismayed by the electronic scanner. Laurel Canyon feels similarly out of touch.

In the film's first scene, Cholodenko introduces us to the young couple by showing them unsuccessfully having sex. Sam gets rattled by the phone and politely gives up when Alex "finishes" before he does. The real action kicks off when Alex and Sam decide to leave Cambridge and move to Los Angeles to live at Sam's mother's house while she's off working as a record producer. Unlike her uptight son, Jane Bentley (Frances McDormand) is a free spirit who smokes pot, drinks, sleeps late, uses foul language and generally appreciates life. Unfortunately, when Sam and Alex arrive, she's still living at the house with a young (pretentious) British band and trying to come up with a radio-friendly single in the studio basement.

Not surprisingly, Jane -- who is sleeping with the band's lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola) -- teaches Alex to loosen up, as well. Cholodenko brings them into a highly implausible and laughable erotic three-way sparked by a splash-fight in a swimming pool. Meanwhile, Sam gets his lesson on life from a beautiful resident doctor at the hospital where he works. Sara (Natascha McElhone) comes on to him with a sexual frankness that he's never before experienced. Both Sam and Alex are attractive people, but it's a little too convenient that they should both experience a sexual awakening at the same time so that they can return renewed to each other. Moreover, the filmmaker wants us to connect with her troubled characters just because they're troubled. She shows Sam and Alex as "uptight" people, but their uptightness is far too obvious. It's all surface.

Cholodenko had the same problem with her 1998 debut feature, High Art. Its characters were rooted in Hollywood fluff and did not come from any real place. As a result, the relationship between a fledgling photographer and her more experienced hero felt forced. Even so, High Art contained a strong supporting performance from Patricia Clarkson as a washed up German film actress. And it goes without saying that McDormand is the high point of Laurel Canyon. She tears through the stiff, paper-thin movie with a sense of complete freedom, the same way Geena Davis did in The Accidental Tourist or Queen Latifah in Bringing Down the House. If Cholodenko could put as much energy into her main characters as she does into these "minor" characters, she might have something. But sadly, Laurel Canyon is not it.{subid}&url=hitlist.asp?searchfield=marvel
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