Laurel Canyon

Laurel Canyon is about as boring as a good movie can get. It has some interesting developments, a couple of characters worth watching, but nothing particularly special and it all drags on for far too long with little that’s actually worthy of your time. It’s predictable, relatively dull, and while it’s made with skill and has good to really good actors taking part, I just couldn’t invest myself in the story it was trying to tell. Perhaps that’s a failure on my part, but the film didn’t win me over.

I like movies with smart characters, and this one has two very smart people in the leading roles. Sam (Christian Bale), has recently become engaged to Alex (Kate Beckinsale), and the two have decided to move to Los Angeles. Sam has recently graduated and is starting his residency at the local hospital, while Alex is continuing her studies. They are going to stay at Sam’s mother’s house, which she won’t be at because she’ll be on her beach house. Or so we think. Turns out, she gave the beach house to her ex-husband — something you can do when you’re a rich record producer — and has herself, and a band, staying in the one she promised Sam. Oops.

It’s no big deal, right? Alex only needs peace and quiet to finish her dissertation, and a band will totally not be an inconvenience considering all they do is play music really loud. Right. Anyway, Sam’s mother, Jane (Frances McDormand) is in a relationship with the band’s lead singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), which is about as open a relationship as you’re going to get. You can already see the ways these different lifestyles are going to clash.

So, Alex, who spends the day around the house, eventually starts to get involved in the culture that is Jane’s life, while Sam, who rarely gets to leave the hospital — such is the life of a doctor — starts finding himself spending a lot of time with another woman, a fellow doctor, Sara (Natascha McElhone). Problems arise that need solving, obviously, and it’ll all work itself out in the end. Maybe. Probably not. I don’t really know or care.

The point is that it doesn’t matter. The film could have complete closure, or it could be open-ended, and it would make no difference to me. None of the storylines managed to connect in any meaningful way, and even in the really tense, dramatic moments, I found myself yawning. There’s not a whole lot of character depth, and any development that happens is superficial. These characters have to act this way because of the way the film has been written, not because they really should.

At the center of all the film’s chaos is Frances McDormand, the only actor here who both creates a new character and becomes fully immersed in that creation. She deserves the top billing received here, even though the film isn’t about her; it only becomes that way because of the presence she has while on-screen. Here, her hippie-of-the-70s woman is always compelling to watch, and if Laurel Canyon was about her and not a couple set on different trajectories, it might have worked. But, alas, this is not the movie we’ve been given.

Everyone else in the film is fine, but nothing special, especially when compared to or sharing the screen with McDormand. Bale, Beckinsale, Nivola, McElhone — they’re all accomplished in their own right, but their performances here are just fine. Nothing special, nothing bad; they do what they’re told and they do it believably and credibly, but without managing to capture the screen. There are only so many ways to say that their performances are what’s required and nothing more.

Fun fact: McDormand is also the only main actor who gets to use a natural accent. Beckinsale in English, playing an American. Bale is Welsh, also playing an American. Nivola is American, but playing a Brit, while McElhone is English, but playing an Iranian, I believe. That’s not noticeable while the film is playing — all of the accents are credible and if you didn’t know the actors’ natural accents, you wouldn’t notice — but I thought it was a fun thing to mention.

The problem for me is that it’s all well-made, and that if it had something to interest us, I would have been very appreciative. Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous directorial effort was the acclaimed High Art, knows what she’s doing. But the story is the problem here, not the director. Very few people could make this plot captivating, as it has been done before and isn’t particularly interesting regardless of how many times it has been done.

Laurel Canyon is the type of film about which I have little to say. It’s all fine and competent, but not compelling. If you’re looking for a film to watch just because it’s technically sound, then it’s fine, but if you want a drama in which you can invest yourself, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Good dramas have strong characters; Laurel Canyon has one. Frances McDormand shines, and fans of her should see it even though everything around is uninteresting. She captures the screen with the character she creates, and actually helps hide flaws in other areas. But, the film as a whole is not worth your time.

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