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'Laurel Canyon'

McDormand puts the allure in 'Laurel Canyon'

Friday, May 02, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

A friend who had spent most of his life battling the wintry winds of Chicago and Kansas City announced one day he was moving to Los Angeles. He didn't have a job, but he had his reasons. I specifically remember him talking about playing softball on a pleasant day under a perfect blue sky and realizing with a jolt that it was the middle of January.

 
 
'Laurel Canyon'

RATING: R for sexuality, language and drug use.

STARRING: Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Allesandro Nivola.

DIRECTOR: Lisa Cholodenko.

WEB SITE: www.laurelcanyon

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The very seductiveness of the place lies at the core of "Laurel Canyon," a movie that introduces us to an extended family of affluent artists and manic musicians who dwell on the secluded slopes along those twisted streets in the Hollywood Hills north of the city. And we get to understand the difficulty of resisting their lifestyle, even if you should know better.

Frances McDormand plays Jane, a record producer who has pictures of herself with Joni and Bruce and other musical icons. She's in her 40s but doesn't act like it. Ian (Alessandro Nivola), the lead singer of her current band, is her lover. He's also 16 years younger.

That's uncomfortably close to the age difference between Jane and her son, Sam (Christian Bale), who has graduated from Harvard Medical School and is coming west with his fiancee, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), to complete his residency in psychiatry. She's writing a thesis on the reproductive life of fruit flies.

OK, so they're not exactly a fun couple, but Jane and Ian make up for that. Jane had offered Sam her house in Laurel Canyon, expecting to be away. But the band is having trouble with one last song, leaving Sam to face his worst nightmare -- living with Jane's excesses and exposing Alex to them.

He's right to worry about that second part. What good is sitting alone in your room searching a database for genetic strings when you could be sharing a joint with Jane in the studio, listening to the band? But how far will Alex go in loosening her inhibitions? And to what degree will Sam seek understanding with his beautiful colleague Sara (Natascha McElhone)?

It may really be something in the air. Jane's house, with its expansive glass windows, sits by itself at the top of a big hill with the pool in the front yard surrounded by trees and bushes.

When Alex becomes part of this private world, when she slips into the pool on a warm night with Jane and Ian, each of them holding a drink in one hand as the mist rises from the water and the lights from the house reflect around them, you can see how this seeming Eden tempts you to make your own rules.

Maybe that's why the resolution of writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's character study seems a bit pat. Who will be the adult here? Who will have the strength to stop things before they go too far? As it turns out, a lot more of them than we think. Cholodenko lets her characters taste the forbidden honey but keeps them from diving in headlong, diluting the force of their confrontations.

Still, "Laurel Canyon" has its pleasures -- how could it not? Nivola makes Ian so personable that you can't dislike him. But the biggest asset is McDormand. She makes Jane a nest of contradictions who is sure of her convictions, aware of her shortcomings but defiant in her attitude, playful and sexy and comical. Her saving grace is her unswerving honesty. And that can be pretty seductive in itself.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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