Frances McDormand commands a comedy of manners in La-La Land
The obvious fun in Laurel Canyon revolves around Frances McDormand. She plays Jane, a free-spirited record producer who’s having an affair with the (somewhat younger) lead singer of the band she’s currently recording. She’s also the mother of the tightly wound Sam (Christian Bale), a new med-school grad who’s come back to L.A. with his fiancée and med-school colleague Alex (Kate Beckinsale) planning to live in his mother’s Laurel Canyon digs and have the place to themselves.
Fortunately, Lisa Cholodenko’s new film has a good deal of other delights to go with the not-entirely-predictable amusements that begin to arise as soon as Sam and Alex realize that Jane and her band are still ensconced in the place, trying to come up with an AOR number for their otherwise finished new album. Even more to the point, Sam and Alex are still welcome to stay, but Jane and her paramour Ian (Alessandro Nivola) and the rest of the band will, in their laid-back fashion, persist in living the rock-'n'-roll life 24-7 or thereabouts.
As such, Laurel Canyon has a short, happy life as a comedy of manners, what with fiercely focused Ivy League professionals trying to cohabit with well-heeled hippie types from La-La Land’s entertainment industry. But Cholodenko and company have even more to offer us—the comedy of (mostly) West Coast manners hovers amiably over a set of casual but very observant psychological dramas, and Cholodenko distributes the sympathies and insights in richly varied fashion.
McDormand’s Jane, flaky and formidable at the same time, is a wonder—and something quite different from the mother she played in Almost Famous, not to mention the mother-to-be in Fargo. Hers is the flashy role in the piece, and she’s very good in it, but the best performance in the film comes from Bale, who does a brilliantly stoical fugue and variations on the ambivalences in a Sam whose emotions are never quite as narrow and constricted as he tries to make them.
The big climactic scenes—the Sam-Alex crisis, the day of reckoning between Sam and Jane—steer clear of conventional workings-out, an off-beat ploy that becomes equally virtue and limitation. And quirkily inventive rendering of emotional accounts between Sam and Sara (Natascha McElhone), a medical associate to whom he is attracted, sneaks up on you as perhaps the subtlest and most incisive of the film’s ironic confrontation scenes.
Beckinsale’s Alex is the least striking of the chief performances—in part because the character seems to require a minimalist approach. This smoothly repressed grad student wants to cut loose, at least a little, but her striptease scene with Ian and Jane is half-hearted in a way that evokes the depths of her continuing reluctance.