laurel canyon (2003)


director: lisa cholodenko

frances mcdormand, christian bale, kate beckinsale

There’s something undeniable about a performance like Frances McDormand as Jane, a successful fiftyish record producer and far less successful mother in Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon.

Most reviewers have described McDormand’s performance with pleasant shock, marveling at the earthy sex appeal the actress has suddenly revealed. McDormand is an unusual screen persona; her weak chin and strong lower lip have always hinted at reserves of strength behind a somewhat receding exterior. She has walked away with films like Fargo and Almost Famous, but no one, up till this point, has ever considered her any kind of screen siren.

We meet Jane after we’ve met her son, Sam (Christian Bale), who’s been warning his fiancée, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), about the crazed, unstable mother he’s eager to avoid. When they arrive at the vast home that she was supposed to have vacated, only to find her still in residence with a Coldplay-like band she’s producing, Alex is surprised - and attracted - by the brash, funny, sexy woman on the other side of her son’s resentment.

Alex, Cholodenko is at pains to show us, is from one of those comically uptight WASP families that the movies have been satirizing for decades, so much so that it’s amazing, at this late date, to see that they still exist. Her reserve and discipline will not survive an encounter with Jane and Ian, her younger lover, the band’s lead singer, played by Alessandro Nivola with guiltless seductiveness.

The film, at heart, is a set-up. Sam’s seething grudge against his mother, supposedly the key to his character, is a strange red herring when we see him as a compassionate medical resident at a mental ward. It’s as much a scripted obstacle as his fiancée’s crumbling discipline and sexual ripeness, a flimsy impediment in the path of McDormand’s Jane, who Cholodenko can’t help but depict as a lovable monster of charisma, frankness, and indiscriminate sexual energy.

When the final blow-out comes, we’re somehow supposed to applaud Jane’s apparently difficult decision that it’s probably wrong to sleep with her son’s fiancée. Beckinsale’s Alex comes off like a plaything, not of Jane and Ian, but of the script, which only grudgingly allows that Sam’s fear of his mother might not be so groundless. The movie, like Alex, has been seduced by McDormand’s Jane, and Cholodenko’s grudging admission that Jane is an emotional menace comes off as unconvincing, because neither she nor her movie really want to admit that it’s true.