Embarrassing boho mom. Uptight, studious kid. Sounds like Absolutely Fabulous, right? And sure enough, there's more than a whiff of Eddy and Saffy in the fractious mother/son relationship at the core of Lisa Cholodenko's second feature.
Her first, 1998 indie High Art, was notable both for its lesbian sex and a revelatory comeback performance from former Brat Packer Ally Sheedy. The shagging may be less in-your-face this time around, but the helmer again displays her skill with actresses by eliciting a cracking turn from Frances McDormand as the record producer at odds with her med-student son.
Harvard grad Sam (Christian Bale) and his fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale) move into his mum's supposedly vacant LA pad, only to find ma Jane (McDormand) working on an album with singer boyfriend Ian (Alessandro Nivola). Seduced by Jane's lifestyle, Alex is soon neglecting her thesis in favour of skinny-dips and threesomes with her would-be mum-in-law. Sam, meanwhile, finds himself falling for sympathetic fellow doc Sara (Natascha McElhone).
Is there something in the water, or does everyone in Hollywood go at it like rabbits? Thankfully there's more to Laurel Canyon than its partner-swapping antics: a thoughtful script, a watchable cast and a great soundtrack featuring Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and Eartha Kitt. While McElhone and Beckinsale struggle with their accents, these Brit actresses still look the part, putting most Tinseltown totty to shame.
Yet despite all this, Laurel Canyon doesn't amount to quite as much as it should do, some clichéd dialogue and sentimental mush guaranteed to get viewers wincing. McDormand's ageing rock chick is ambiguous and unpredictable - - if only the same could be said of the film.
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A stand-out performance from McDormand and good work from Batman-in-waiting Bale prop up a slightly wobbly tale of intergenerational conflict. More absolutely watchable than fabulous.