Used to be, not so long ago, that the sure-fire way to rebel against your parents, teachers and other adult authority was as simple as the three chords it took to play in a garage band: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But as the boomer generation went on to become parents themselves, things got more complicated. Sure, some parents did the Bill Clinton thing, pretending that they never inhaled or listened to Foghat, but there were those unrepentant children of the ’60s and ’70s who went right on doing what they were doing, living the “alternative lifestyle.”
Pity, dear reader, the child who has to figure out how to rebel against a mother whose idea of good parenting is to teach that proper manners require the bong be passed to guests first.
Such is the dilemma of Sam, a twentysomething medical-school graduate played by Christian Bale in “Laurel Canyon.” While many people would be envious of having a mom who’s a rich and famous rock-music producer and totally cool, Sam sees only an irresponsible parent who refuses to grow up. Sam has fled his mother, Jane (Frances McDormand, playing the polar opposite of her role in “Almost Famous”), and the West Coast permissiveness that she’s part of for the tight-ass, work-ethic preppiness of an East Coast Ivy League education. He’s got a doctorate in psychiatry and a W.A.S.P. fiance named Alex (Kate Beckinsale, in a perfect bit of typecasting); everything would be fine except that Sam has to return to California for his internship in the psychiatric ward of an L.A. hospital.
Sam intends to stay at his mother’s second home in the posh suburb of Laurel Canyon, with its green-lined winding roads and enviable seclusion. The problem is — and Sam knows that any time his mom’s involved, there is a problem — that the house turns out not to be empty. When Sam and Alex turn up, Jane is there in the living room smoking dope with the band whose new album she’s currently recording in her on-property studio. Not only that, she’s obviously involved with the lead singer, Ian (Allesandro Nivola), a guy half her age.
Sam seethes with two decades’ worth of well-nurtured resentment at his mother’s behavior (“She’s developmentally disabled!”), a frustration that only gets worse when Alex starts warming to Jane, putting aside her dissertation on the reproductive qualities of fruit flies to hang out in the studio with the band. Sam obviously resents Jane for her loose and chaotic lifestyle, but it’s clear that his deeper resentment is being forced to live in the shadow of her charisma.
After spending his days dealing with people having psychotic reactions to crystal meth, Sam has no time for Jane’s world of anything-goes hedonism. Things go badly with Alex as she falls into Jane’s orbit, and Ian rather overtly starts hitting on her. Sam turns to Sara (Natascha McElhone), an Israeli intern he works with, to confide in. But while he just wants to talk, she’s looking to sleep with him; Sam’s too confused to act on it, though.
Director Lisa Cholodenko examined similar bedroom politics in her debut, “High Art,” albeit with characters who seemed more well-observed. Cholodenko — who once left California to study at Columbia University in N.Y.C. — had a keen eye for the competitiveness, sexual tension and ethical dilemmas of the Manhattan art scene. Her L.A. milieu, though, seems a bit less well-imagined; her characters — particularly Ian — more like caricatures. A scene where Jane asks straight and narrow Alex for her opinion on a song seems especially phony: “Anyone with instinct knows about popular music, that’s why it’s popular,” lectures Jane. “You know what repulses you and what turns you on, right?” As though someone with three decades in the industry would defer to a preppy when it comes to predicting gold records.
Yet balancing this are the things Cholodenko nails head-on, like Alex’s tweedy parents who worry about her going to California “and joining the Scientologists. Or the vegetarians.” Or the way in which she directs Bale so that he never looks at anyone in the eye when discussing his feelings. Particularly well-written — and well-acted — are Bale’s scenes with McElhone. They bristle with an electricity that’s missing from the more predictable bits where Beckinsale lets her hair down and succumbs to hedonism. One scene, where Sam and Sara sit in a parked car talking to each other, imagining what it would be like if they had sex, has more of a charge than any actual sex scene to hit the screen in recent memory.
Cholodenko’s got a better sense than most of how messed-up relationships can get when the sexual aspects get tricky. “Laurel Canyon” may be only a decent sophomore effort, but she remains a director to watch.
In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.