WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Laurel Canyon is the kind of film that wins you over with its easy style, its laid-back charm, but when you start thinking about its characters and developments, it just frustrates you with its shallowness. Which is unfortunate, because there are some very likable elements here, not least of which is an incandescent performance by Frances McDormand.
Sam (Christian Bale) and his fiancée, Alex (a luminous Kate Beckinsale) are about to travel to LA, where he will begin his residency as a psychiatrist. He's somewhat irritable and shifty-eyed, and she's a fussy little uptight bitch with a snippy reply to everything Sam says. (She also enjoys good oral sex, as the opening scene lets us know in no uncertain terms.) They plan to stay at the Laurel Canyon home of Sam's mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a chain-smoking record producer who has led a life of bohemian sexual freedom. She's supposed to be out of town when they arrive, but much to Sam's dismay, she's still in residence, along with her current lover and a band that's recording an album. Our two main characters, whom we dislike for most of the film, settle into their new life and soon, particularly in Alex's case, they begin experiencing sexual awakenings.
The best compliment I can pay Laurel Canyon is that it is an undoubtedly sexy film, from Jane's uninhibited nature to Alex's burgeoning sexuality to the lazy sprawl of the film's tone and pace. It's a film with sex firmly on its mind, and yet many of the characters—including Sam and Alex—are so unlikable and so shallow that the film's "sex drive" becomes much ado about nothing. All I could think was how much of a turn-on this film could have been had I liked the people involved. And in one case, I did—this may be Frances McDormand's finest performance since Fargo. In Laurel Canyon, she exudes an easy carnality, and she also infuses Jane with an emotional depth. The same can't be said of the rest of the cast, unfortunately, despite the fact that Kate Beckinsale is drop-dead gorgeous.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Paramount presents Laurel Canyon in a spectacular anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This is solid transfer, in all respects. Detail is wonderful, reaching deeply into backgrounds. The rich color palette is brought forth with stunning clarity and vividness. Flesh tones are natural and solid. I noticed no compression artifacts of any kind. Edge halos are all but absent. Paramount is making a habit of churning out first-rate efforts. Bravo!
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track comes alive in a few of the film's musical interludes, pushing the sound into the rears, but otherwise, this film is a dialog-heavy affair that stays right up front. This is not a soundtrack with which to show off your system, but the film doesn't require audio fireworks. This track more than suits the material. Dialog is accurate and clear.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
First up is a Commentary with Director Lisa Cholodenko. She's a very well-spoken woman who provides an engaging conversation over the film. She talks about the inspiration of Joni Mitchell's album Ladies of the Canyon and the way McDormand's free-loving chainsmoker is based on Mitchell. She also mentions patterning the character on a producer like Daniel Lanois. She talks at length about her actors and obviously holds all of them in very high esteem. And she doesn't shy away from the erotic aspects of the story and how difficult they sometimes were to film. She is clearly quite proud of her film, and the pride is infectious.
Interestingly, the 21-minute Featurette is an interview piece that repeats many of the comments that Cholodenko makes in the commentary. Except this time, you get to see her talking, interspersed with scenes from the film. She walks through the hiring of the five principal actors, and discusses the cinematographer and the music.
You also get Filmographies, TV Spots, and Trailers for Laurel Canyon, All the Real Girls, Love Liza, and Talk to Her.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Give Laurel Canyon a shot for McDormand's wonderful performance and for the engaging supplements by the film's director. Don't expect deep emotional resonance, but do expect a pretty sexy little drama.