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Laurel Canyon

Laurel Canyon
reviewed by Greta Christina

It starts right off with a sex scene. A man is going down on a woman. She's telling him exactly what to do and how, right up to the moment when she stops him and says, "Fuck me." The man complies, with a fair degree of vigor, until they're interrupted by the phone ringing and his mother's voice on the message machine. During this interruption, the woman goes ahead and comes; she asks if he did too, and he shrugs and replies, "I'm okay."

And we're off to the races. Laurel Canyon wastes no time, jumping with both feet into a whirlpool (or diving pool, or some kind of pool) of sexual tension. The woman and man are Alex and Sam (Kate Beckinsale and Christian Bale), fiancees who've just graduated from Harvard Medical School -- her in genetics, him in psychiatry. They're planning to stay in his mother's empty house in L.A. so he can pursue a plum residency; but his record-producer mother Jane (Frances McDormand) is still there when they arrive, finishing an album by a British band and humping the young lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola). Things between Sam and Jane are strained; her life is loose and chaotic, with men and women coming and going, while he's opted for a calmer, more controlled world, probably in reaction against her. Sam is nervous as hell about introducing his fiancee to his mother -- a nervousness that seems prophetic as the movie unfolds. Alex is just as much an order-freak as Sam, and her work involves sitting alone all day in a lab or an office. But as she spends more time with Jane and Ian and the band, she grows fascinated with them, sexually and otherwise; and as the story progresses (warning, plot giveaways ahead), she's gradually seduced -- again, sexually and otherwise -- into their world.

Here's a thing you notice right away. Most movies about the seductive power of the L.A. entertainment world show it as all polish and glamour, chrome and glass, perfect bodies in perfect clothes enjoying their perfectly selfish sybaritic pleasures. Not Laurel Canyon. The movie takes its name from the L.A. neighborhood where Jane lives, and it is indeed lovely to look at and not lacking in wealth; but it's lovely in a chaotic way, artfully unkempt, lush and overgrown. And ditto the people who live there. Jane is a skinny middle-aged woman in jeans and ratty AC/DC T-shirts; she's gorgeous, to be sure, but her good looks are far from conventional, and her sex appeal comes from her deal-with-things-as-they-come attitude, a singular blend of hippie and hardass, and from her pleasure and comfort in her own skin. And while Ian is a dishy young thing, he's not dishy in a standard pretty-boy way. His sex appeal is in his loungey manner, the loose drape of his arm, the easy slouch of his torso. He inhabits his body like a happy, well-fed cat, casual and unselfconscious, lazy and affectionate, eager to please when it's easy to do so. Unlike 95% of sexual tension in movies, this isn't about what makes movie stars attractive. It's about what makes people in your life attractive.

And it isn't about the seductive appeal of money or power. It's about the seductive appeal of spontaneity and disorder. It isn't glitz and glamour, or even sex and drugs and rock-and-roll, that Alex finds so desirable. It's chaos, and unpredictability, and human connection. Laurel Canyon is about (among other things) the way people use sex to connect with people who have qualities they admire or envy; a form of sympathetic magic, maybe, or just a way to break out of a bog and jump-start a change in their life. It isn't just Alex who does this, although she's the most obvious example. Jane and Ian see things in Alex that they're panting and drooling after; her whip-sharp intellect, her drive, maybe even her self-containment and self-control. And as Sam feels Alex drifting away, he begins his own flirtation/seduction with Sara (Natascha McElhone), another psych resident, who has (he thinks) the control and reliability that Jane never gave him and that Alex is throwing away with both hands.

In other words, this isn't a simplistic "free spirits teach the uptight control freaks to loosen up and enjoy life" story. It's harder than that, and more complicated. Jane and Ian's damn-the-torpedoes sex life has real consequences, sometimes fucked-up consequences, consequences that a trained chimp could have seen coming six weeks away, but that Jane and Ian either willfully ignore or can't imagine. So the question is: Why doesn't Alex see it? She's no dummy, and she can't have built a successful academic career without extensive experience in foresight and planning.

I think it's because looking ahead, anticipating consequences and altering your behavior to cause or avoid them, is all part of what she's trying to leave behind. I think it's no accident that her field of study is genetics -- a study of things that shape our lives over which we have no control. It's Jane and Ian's immediacy, their "I want to connect with you so I'm going to do that right now in the most direct way possible" life, that probably gets her hotter than anything. And it's what gets her and those around her the most seriously hurt. But Laurel Canyon isn't a simplistic morality tale about keeping it buttoned, any more than it's a simplistic morality tale about lightening up. Both ways of life, taken to the extreme, end up empty, missing something essential. And both end up trying to find the missing piece in bed with the other side.

Copyright 2003 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.


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