If the booze-swilling, joint-toking, oversexed evil sister of Frances McDormand’s Almost Famous matron were to make her own movie, it might look something like Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, a film that gives the finger to those who raise their children as conservatively as possible, saying, “We reckless, life-loving free spirits have it hard too, you know!” McDormand stars as that malevolent doppelganger Jane, a top-notch rock ’n roll producer who rekindles the awkward relationship with her uptight psychiatrist son Sam when he returns home to sunny California with his equally uptight fiancé Alex in tow. Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale portray this match seemingly made in heaven (they’re the type of couple whose idea of quality time involves reading medical journals “together”), and they walk through the movie like tourists dazed by the neon lights and exploding fireworks at Disneyland—maybe because both of them are British, and their affected take on a young and decidedly banal American couple causes their interplay to appear like dim caricatures with stiff upper lips. Exposed to Jane’s exuberant lifestyle, the couple lets down their guard and allow themselves to be tempted by life. Sam enters into a flirtation with his supervisor at the hospital (Natascha McElhone, who after Solaris, seems to be capable of nothing but playing a temptress) while Alex becomes infatuated with the singer (Alessandro Nivola) Jane is producing and having sex with. Laurel Canyon’s most infuriating quality is that it telegraphs where it’s going in about 10 minutes, slowly explicating every little contrivance along the way to make sure we don’t miss a thing. But miss what? That Sam needs to loosen up a little, or that Jane might have been a wee bit insensitive and selfish somewhere in the course of raising her son? Laurel Canyon is the kind of movie that points its finger at the flaws of all of its characters, thinking that adds up to some sort of honesty or integrity. All it really means is that the characters are nothing but failures, thus making their obnoxious suffering and self-centered whining impossible to endure for over 100 minutes.
Similar to High Art, Laurel Canyon’s laughable and portentous soap opera prose holds its lovely poetic aesthetic hostage for the duration of its running time. On this DVD edition, Columbia TriStar Home Video presents the film in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image is at times overblown and pale looking, but skin tones are accurate and there’s nary an edge halo to be seen. The film’s ethereal groove is certainly beautiful if not liable to cause sleep. And though dialogue is perfectly discernable, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track truly shines whenever the film’s bohemians get their freak (and ganja) on in swimming pools and crowded recording studios.
The best extra included on this Laurel Canyon DVD is a lengthy taking-head featurette with director Lisa Cholodenko. At least it’s good enough that you may not notice that she’s clearly sitting in front of a green screen (notice how the traffic light in the background-a shot of a Laurel Canyon street-doesn’t change from green for the duration of the interview). Cholodenko goes on about the interesting origins of the film (Joni Mitchell’s "Ladies Of The Canyon") and her fascination with Laurel Canyon. Over the course of 30 minutes, Cholodenko gives genuine insight into the technical struggles faced by independent filmmakers working with tight budgets. And because this featurette is so good, her actual commentary track is simply redundant. Also included here are two TV spots, cast and crew bios, a weblink, the film’s trailer and trailers for All the Real Girls, Love Liza and Talk to Her.
Laurel Canyon will make you wish that your mother liked to smoked pot. By film’s end, though, you’ll have realized that the only way to tolerate Laurel Canyon is under the influence of illicit substances.