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Laurel Canyon

Laurel Canyon (2002) is a compelling, interesting film with a strong cast giving strong performances. But it ultimately falls short thanks to a plot that's as transparent as the water in the swimming pool outside the hillside L.A. house where most of the movie's action takes place. From the moment we meet the film's main characters — newly minted psychiatrist Sam (Christian Bale), his East Coast brainiac fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale), his free-spirit record producer mom Jane (Frances McDormand), and Jane's roguishly charming rock star boyfriend Ian (Alessandro Nivola) — it's easy to see where writer/director Lisa Cholodenko is planning to take them. Particularly Alex and Sam; if ever a cinematic couple was bound for some serious self-evaluation and relationship navel-gazing, it's these two. After she and Sam get settled in his mother's house, it just takes one afternoon in the recording studio with Jane and Ian's band to start Alex wondering why she's been so uptight all her life — meanwhile, straight-laced Sam discovers that it's not so easy to walk the straight and narrow when an attractive colleague (Natascha McElhone) is obviously interested. Both Bale and Beckinsale are quite convincing in how they react to the unexpected confusion they find waiting for them in Jane's world, but it is Jane herself who turns out to be the film's center. McDormand is in top form playing a woman whose almost-childlike optimism can switch to cool business savvy in the blink of an eye; she's successful in her work, but a disaster at relationships, especially the one she's struggling to forge with her disapproving son. As Jane, McDormand is funny, brave, vulnerable, and fierce — so it's a shame Cholodenko doesn't give her a more original path to follow. Between the constant pot-smoking, the chaotic parties, and the string of failed attempts at intimacy, in the end, Jane's life is really a validation of every sun-soaked, rock-n-roll stereotype popular culture has ever given us — just as Alex and Sam's characters are textbook-perfect examples of what happens when you're afraid to actually live your life. All of them deserve more than Cholodenko's predictable route through the twisting roads of Laurel Canyon. That said, there's much to enjoy about the movie, not the least of which is the lovely anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) on Columbia TriStar's DVD, which showcases Wally Pfister's sometimes-luminous cinematography. The extras are few but meaningful: The "making-of" featurette (21 min.) offers lots of insights from Cholodenko, and her audio commentary is informative, if occasionally a bit too sedate. Other features include bio/filmographies for Cholodenko and the principal cast, trailers, and TV spots. Audio options include English DD 5.1, French subtitles, and English closed captions. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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