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Laurel Canyon


Laurel Canyon


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"Either it pulls you in or it leaves you cold," Frances McDormand tells future daughter-in-law Kate Beckinsale, explaining her approach to producing records, and her credo toward the rest of the world. A rock 'n' roll veteran, McDormand lives in a house in which gold records overlook tables covered with beer cans and empty tequila bottles. Her Almost Famous character would single out her Laurel Canyon character for shame, even though they share a tenacious adherence to the principles of their choice. Sure, McDormand can enjoy an affair with Alessandro Nivola, the lead singer of the band she's currently producing, without getting bothered by the Fleetwood Mac-ness of it all, but she'll be damned if she'll tailor a radio-friendly song just so it can come out in time for Christmas. Parenting has also left her cold, or so it would seem from son Christian Bale's attitude when he and Beckinsale move from the East Coast to the West, he to take a job as a psychiatric resident, she to finish a thesis that involves sorting through reams of data on DNA and the mating habits of fruit flies. Told that McDormand's house would be vacant, they move in, only to discover that a change of plans will force them to share the house with her and the endless bustle of her life. As much as Laurel Canyon is driven by its characters and the deft performances of its cast, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art) was smart to name her second feature after its setting, the rock-star-rich L.A. neighborhood that refracts the glamour of the Hollywood hills through a grimy lens. It's a place where everything is permitted and nothing is supposed to hurt, but its freedom weighs heavily on some of its residents. Having long since left the area for more cerebral pursuits, Bale has no taste for it at all, and he watches in dismay as Beckinsale gets drawn into the lotus-like charms of days spent stoned by the pool or in the studio, slowly perfecting the music of Nivola's band. But then, when confronted with a desire of his own in the form of an increasingly intense relationship with coworker Natascha McElhone, he unironically offers "sublimation" as a viable option. In a place that allows no sublimation, he has no place. Cholodenko cleverly sets up some obvious relationships that challenge the balance of repression, freedom, and excess, then lets them develop in less-than-obvious ways. Occasionally, the film invites a more dynamic touch than the careful slowness Cholodenko carries over from High Art. But that same care gives the movie a seductive quality that would have been lost in a more hurried approach, and brings to the surface the real hurt beneath the comic contrast of mother and son. Between the ivory tower and the shady canyon, Cholodenko finds a rare patch of common ground.