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Ever since I took a screenwriting class a decade ago, I have been keenly aware of opening scenes. Though the first ten minutes of a film are usually devoted to setting up everything that will follow, the first seconds will tell you quite a bit about the movie you are going to watch. Rent a movie, or go see one in the theater. Even the credits will give you an idea about what you're going to see, and that first camera shot will set the tone for your entire viewing experience in all but the worst-conceived films.
Opening on a sex scene, Laurel Canyon instantly lets you know that what follows will be steamy, and it delivers indeed. This first love scene is also human, and its awkwardness and tenderness opens the space for all the characters here to be genuine.
It's Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) who make the keynote nookie. He is an interning psychiatrist, and she is working on a Ph.D. in genetics. His internship will take them to Los Angeles where Alex will continue to work on her dissertation. They plan to tie the knot in summer. We are briefly introduced to Alex's unpleasant parents, upper-crusty snobs played nearly to caricature. I'm not sure why the film even includes their pish-toshing and tactless counsel. Maybe it's to contrast Alex's comfort with her parents against Sam's anxiety and embarrassment around his mom.
The plan is that Sam and Alex will stay in Sam's mom's house because she's planning to be elsewhere. As a very successful record producer, she travels a lot. But as a very successful record producer, she also smokes a lot of loopy-weed, parties constantly, and changes her plans all the time. Yes, Jane (Frances McDormand) has NOT left the house to Sam and Alex. She's there with her latest project, a British pop band, and her latest beaux, it's lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola).
Put Sam, Jane, Alex, and Ian in a house together and internal motives and desires begin to create external friction. And we all know that friction creates heat, smoke, and sometimes fire. Sam proves to be straight-laced, ambitious, and uptight. He wants to get himself and Alex out of the house, but can't apartment hunt and intern at the same time. Alex, meanwhile, starts to lose interest in her dissertation for the fascinating lifestyle of the woman who knows Bowie, B.B. King, and Bruce "The Boss" personally. Sam turns house hunting over to Alex, but she turns inaction into fabricated excuses.
Ian, the Puck figure in this Midsummer Night's Dream, tempts Alex with his priapic kindness until she leaves her studies and finds her way into the recording studio, where Jane takes her under her wing and gets Alex to lose some of her inhibitions.
All this inhibition-losing gets Jane, Ian, and Alex into sexual play together that starts at heated-pool temperatures, but heads quickly toward jacuzzi on a path toward whistling tea kettle. At the same time, the chasm between Sam's coldness and Alex's willingness increases. But Sam isn't only driven away by his distaste for his mother's lifestyle. He also meets the extremely hot second-year intern, Sara (A Very Attractive Actress) and windmills on the edge of falling in love with her.
Director Lisa Cholodenko does a nice job keeping things subtle and human. That's her strength. Add to this a great performance by Frances McDormand, who I find magnetic and intriguing, and you get an engaging film overall. Ian the Rocker adds a good comic foil to Sam's tightly wound intern. These characters aren't cutouts, which is nice. We see that Sam's rigidity is often ready to break open.
But like life, Lisa's Cholodenko's portrayal is sloppy
sometimes, in the meeting with Alex's parents, for example. They
aren't given enough screen time to develop their icky haughtiness
properly, so it's rushed into one scene and comes off looking
like satire, not realism. Elsewhere, Sam is blatantly unable to put
his finger on the lack of mother-love in his childhood as a cause for
some of his current behavior. As a viewer, you recognize this aspect
of his personality immediately, and since Sam is a training psychiatrist,
you'd think he'd have an inkling, but he doesn't.
It is nice that Laurel Canyon does not tie up all its loose ends to deliver a typically clean, all-happy Hollywood conclusion. What would have been nice, though, would be to have had any kind of conclusion at all. Though I recognize the hipness of leaving some questions unanswered, I'd humbly request that filmmakers consider their last scenes at least as carefully as their opening scenes.
©2003 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.