Both Sides Now

There's gonna be a heartache tonight: Frances McDormand in 'Laurel Canyon'
Sony Pictures Classics

If Frances McDormand's character in Almost Famous were to meet her character in Laurel Canyon, she'd probably yank the cigarette from the latter's mouth, slap her on the cheek, and say something like, "Grow up." She'd probably get a "Fuck you" in response. And we'd be rooting for them both. That's the beauty of McDormand's acting: She picks characters she loves and makes them sympathetic--even when they're insufferable. Her love shines through her performances as unequivocally as sunlight. It's a heart-level thing: In Laurel Canyon, you don't get the sense that she has analyzed her character much intellectually; she has just gotten inside this woman's solar-wind aura and then let go.

McDormand's Jane is an apparently legendary rock producer with a recording studio at her home in Laurel Canyon--the glamorously rustic Hollywood hollow where musicians from Joni Mitchell to Rick Rubin have long lived and recorded. We first get a sense of her stature when Alex, played by Kate Beckinsale, ogles a line of photographs of Jane with her collaborators: Iggy, Springsteen, the Chili Peppers, et al. It's never mentioned that female rock producers, much less famous ones, are practically nonexistent. That's part of Jane's appeal--and the movie's: I wish she really existed. I wish Laurel Canyon were really that cool.

Anyway, Jane is in the midst of recording with an English Coldplay-type band--and sleeping with the 30ish lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola)--when her son Sam (Christian Bale) arrives from the East Coast. He and his fiancée Alex (Beckinsale) are both uptight brainiacs finishing their doctorates, and Sam has an internship at a local hospital. Jane was supposed to have finished the record and vacated the house already, but, typically, things got complicated. Sam is pissed: He has major Mom Issues. Alex, meanwhile, is intrigued. The bulk of the film is spent exploring the tensions and relationships that develop around this domestic car wreck. In other words: Somebody's gonna hurt someone before the night is through.

The film's setup is a tad contrived (and its Ivy League preface feels a bit overplayed). But as soon as Sam and Alex walk into Jane's house, and her band guys are sitting around on couches in golden sunlight, shooting the shit in English accents, something rings true. Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko cast a real band, Folk Implosion, to play her fictional band, and it works. (Indie-rockers: Keep an eye out for Lou Barlow.) There's none of that fake-subcultural vibe you got, for example, at the "magazine" in Cholodenko's debut feature High Art. And McDormand fits right in. Her Jane is a slightly butch, no-bra/no-bullshit smoker type who understands maybe two things in life: music and desire. Beyond that, she's lost--and she knows her limitations have damaged her son. She's complicated. She's real. In fact, though a person like Jane has never really existed, I feel as if I know her. She's every musician I've ever known. She's every kick-ass middle-aged woman I've ever known, every fucked-up single mom, every artist. You kind of wish she had been in the band in Almost Famous.

This is Cholodenko's strength, both here and in High Art, which had a similar plot, but dealt with druggy artists in New York: She has a natural sympathy for the neuroses and peccadilloes of artists--and she's fascinated with the ways that creativity shapes people's relationships. I love that. For one thing, it's pretty rare as a theme in movies--and in this sense, Laurel Canyon offers a depth that Almost Famous completely avoids.

But Cholodenko is less sure of herself when it comes to outsiders, whether it's the blank boyfriend of High Art or the science-geeks of Laurel Canyon. When Alex first meets the band and explains her Ph.D. thesis--a study of fruit-fly reproduction--they snicker, bewildered that anyone would waste her time on something so dry. (This is echoed later by another character, Sara, a shrink at the hospital who's interested in Sam.) It's almost as if Alex is being set up: You get the sense that, like the boys in the band, Cholodenko doesn't really get this woman.

Come to think of it, Alex is being set up. For one thing, Beckinsale is way too Hollywood-gorgeous for this part, which exacerbates her awkwardness in the role. The script doesn't help. With such (apparently) boring work and such a passionless relationship, of course Alex is going to be attracted to Jane's world. With Sam gone all day at the hospital, Alex starts hanging out with Jane and the boys, creeping down to the studio to watch them record, smoking a little pot, sitting poolside while Jane and Ian nightswim. Meanwhile, Sam is dealing with his own struggles at work, including his attraction to Sara (Natascha McElhone). Things get kind of intense. There are misunderstandings, and there's a party at the Chateau Marmont. Shit happens. (And the dig that Cholodenko gets in at Spin is hilarious.)

Problem is, we don't feel strongly enough about Alex and Sam's relationship. As individuals, the two are fairly flat; as a couple, they're a flat-out bummer. There's not enough at stake here: In fact, you kind of hope they do break up. I don't know if this was intentional or not, but on a strictly mechanical level it doesn't do much for the movie's momentum.

That said, Laurel Canyon has a charm that lingers. For one thing, the film is beautiful to watch: the craggy spine of Mulholland Drive, the wet pavement of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and the tree-lined stone patio of Jane's backyard. You can almost smell the sweet-wet scent of the evening air when Sam comes home from work. And Cholodenko really captures the rich-music-hippy milieu: The party scenes are perfect, complete with random lovelies and the re-quisite child who bewitches all the grownups. It's almost as if Cholodenko wanted to celebrate this realm for its own sake, and felt obliged to build a plot to that end. I only wish she could have saved a little of that passion for all her characters.

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