Laurel Cañyon
A Film written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko

The new film from Lisa Cholodenko is a classic "comedy of manners" But a literal translation of what the French - who invented the genre - call a "comedie de moeurs" - a "comedy of morals" - would in this case be much more appropriate. It is an understated, modest film, and within it's self-assigned limitations it succeeds very well.

The typical literary work of this type is a "satire" in the broadest sense. It's purpose is to illuminate, for our amusement and perhaps edification, the "manners" and "morals" by which we live. It does so by evoking, through the actions of the characters, the self-deceptions, hypocrisies, errors of judgement and vanities that color our social interactions. The result is a sort of literary version of cultural anthropology, but presented in a much more dramatic and engaging way than the scientific approach allows.

Cholodenko's story, which she also wrote, revolves around a successful middle-aged record producer, her thirty-something musician lover, her late twenty-something Psychiatric Resident son, his M.D. wife who is working on her Ph.D. in genetics, and his attractive co-worker at the Psychiatric Hospital. These five characters engage in a dance of attraction, flirtation, seduction and withdrawal that illustrates and explores contemporary attitudes towards relationships.

The record producer, Jane, - played with great humor and grace by Frances McDormand - invites her son, Sam (Christian Bale), and his girlfriend, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), to use her house while they look for a permanent place to live near his new job in Los Angeles. But instead of having the place to themselves, a production problem leads to their having to share it with Jane, her much younger lover Ian (Alessandro Nivola), and his band-mates, as they struggle to extract a commercially viable single cut from their newly completed album.Meanwhile, Sam is finding himself involved in a mutual attraction with a beautiful co-worker, Sara (Natascha McElhone).

The frictions that develop between the straight-laced Sam and Alex and the free-spirited Jane, Ian and Sara, and the complications their various attractions and the restrictions they place on themselves create, produce a sometimes laughable, sometimes painful, sometimes ruefully ironic set of situations that comment on contemporary moral cosmogony.

Cholodenko strives to enlist our sympathies - and our skepticism - equally among all her characters, allowing no one the "moral high-ground." She shows both the weaknesses and the strengths of the various characters and the positions they take, and leaves us at the end with no clear-cut sense of how the complex web of relationships will be resolved, nor whose attitudes are "right" or "wrong."

The film was developed with the assistance of the Sundance Institute, and it is clearly a product of the "independent film" movement. Such a complex, morally ambiguous and unassuming film could never have found a place at any of the major studios, with their endless pursuit of the twin idols of "genre" and "blockbuster." Yet for all its lack of special effects, action, big-name stars and plot gimmickry, it is a far more interesting and provocative film than most of what is currently on movie screens.

Not that the film is without its problems. Two of the central characters - the son and his girlfriend, Sam and Alex - are rather crudely drawn. The kind of discipline and dedication it takes to get a degree in medicine from Harvard- especially to graduate at the top of one's class, as we are told Alex has - is not reflected very accurately. The apparent ease with which Alex forsakes work on her Ph.D. thesis for the company of the stoned-out rockers seems a bit contrived.

The speed with which Sam's and Sara's attraction develops into a full-fledged flirtation also seems a bit forced - a complication necessary to the exploration Cholodenko is undertaking, but not completely believable given the situation.

And there are some rather artificially written scenes. One in particular is a moment, following a confrontation in which Sam finds Alex in a state of partial undress in the company of Ian. The apology and "reconciliation" that follow don't quite ring true, especially given the ambivalence of emotion we have observed at work.

Cholodenko, who only has one previous screen credit, the unevenly reviewed High Art, seems to be over-reaching here a bit in trying to act as both writer and director. It's difficult to ride these two horses, which often pull in different directions and she occasionally falters - unable as director bring the characters embodied by the actors into a comfortable integration with the dialogue and the exigencies of the plot.

But in spite of the unveneness, there is a lot here to like. Much of it is based on polished performances by a fine cast. The ensemble of actors in the five leading roles deliver the goods - within the limitations of the script - to invest the story with real interest and emotional sincerity.

Frances McDormand, well-known from her Academy Award-winning Best Actress performance in Fargo, and her nominated Supporting Actress turns in Almost Famous and Mississippi Burning, is a veteran whose career spans almost twenty years and more than 30 feature films. Here, she has a character who has to be believable as a successful, creative business-person, notwithstanding a strong current of self-indulgent lack of discipline, and likeable and sympathetic in spite of her sometimes overweening egotism and hedonism.

McDormand is equal to the complexity of the role. Jane, as she portrays her, is a believable product of the times and milieu from which she emerges. Her self-absorption is as understandable and excusable as it is annoying. Her palpable - but vulnerable and insecure - affection for Sam (and Ian) is indicative of both her strengths and weaknesses. McDormand, although working effectively in an ensemble cast, becomes the emotional pivot around whose affection and attention the other characters orbit.

Christian Bale, as Sam, gives a solid performance. Despite some weaknesses and inconsistencies in the character as written and some poorly written dialogue, he manages to convey much of the confusion and reaction that growing up under the wing of a character like Jane might produce. His self-repression and the threat of its violent overthrow in his developing relationship with Sara, as well as his love-hate relationship with Jane and his deeply confused connection to Alex, are subtleties that Bale generally puts across very clearly.

English actress Kate Beckinsale - with a flawless American accent - invests the brainy Boston Brahman Alex with a barely- repressed wild side whose emergence is one of the key energies of the plot. Although her transition seems a bit sudden and extreme, Beckinsale's charm and intelligence manage to overcome most of the awkwardness to make us root for her liberation without entirely approving of the direction it may be taking.

Alessandro Nivola, makes Ian into something far more interesting than a callow rock-star involved with an older woman. His combination of genuine affection for Jane with a manipulative self-indulgence that rivals her own, and the juxtaposition of his diligent craftsmanship as a musician and performer with his anarchic hedonism make a character who is both attractive and dangerous.

The weakest link is Natascha McElhone, playing Sara, Sam's senior co-worker, as a second-year psychiatric resident at the hospital. Unrealistically beautiful to be both someone who has dedicated herself to the rigors and deprivations of a medical career and remained unattached, she is also saddled with an awkward and unidentifiable accent (later labeled, rather unconvincingly, as Israeli). McElhone's Sara is the least developed of the major characters. As a temptation to Sam, counter-balancing the struggle Alex, Ian and Jane are engaged in, the character seems contrived, and McElhone does not have the acting skills to flesh out the rather thin role.

But such allegorical characters are typical of the genre - they serve to point out follies and foolishness of our social conventions rather than to illuminate timeless psychological truths. That Cholodenko as both writer and director has managed to make her characters as three-dimensional as they are is much to her credit and that of her cast.

The whole, as an inquiry into the ebb and flow of morality and desire in the liberal society of Southern California at the beginning of the 21st Century, succeeds in being entertaining and somewhat cautionary at the same time.

There are some wonderful small touches as well, that add a poignancy to the story, including a series of photographs in Jane's house that depict her with a variety of pop music stars including Joni Mitchell - from whose song Ladies Of The Canyon the character of Jane is at least partly drawn. The sincerity of the central musical number - the song that eventually coalesces as Ian's band's single - adds an authentic and moving note as well - and its significance is underlined as it is repeated under the end credits.

The camera-work is not very sophisticated, but suitable to the style of the film. One of the few unusual shots is the final sequence, that beautifully expresses in imagery the unfinished, fluid, ephemeral, magical quality of the story and of the lives it depicts. After an hour and a half of relatively conventional camera angles and positions, this unexpected departure somehow acts as a coda to the disorder and dislocation the actions has described - rather like a visual counterpart to the speech at the end of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - a story to which the film could in some ways be related.

The musical score is well-chosen and neatly integrated into the body of the film. Within the vehicle of a film about the pop-music industry, Cholodenko has integrated a number of iconic standards, as well as original music and lesser known songs, that provide an effective and evocative background for many of the moods and situations that are portrayed.

While not a great film, Laurel Canyon has a great deal of charm. It's mixture of ironic social satire and serious investigation of modern ethos and mores is thoughtful and provocative; the characters are engaging and multi-faceted, people worth spending a little time getting to know; it does not offer a life-changing experience (how many of those can we fit into one life, after all), but a pleasant and amusing evening at the movies.

That's my take on it. What's yours?