Everybody knows the story of Oedipus, the man who killed his father and married his mother, and the complex named for him that involves a son's unnatural attachment to his maternal parent. We don't learn what happens to the father figure in writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon. We doubt the son killed him (or perhaps ever knew him). Father probably just got tossed overboard like the other jetsam in Mother's life. Whatever, the son suffers from something other than an Oedipal Complex. More of a Wed-a-pal Complex. Should he marry his grad-school girlfriend or his new colleague? And will Mom stay out of the way?
Laurel Canyon is the story of Sam (Christian Bale), a Harvard-educated doctor who returns to his Los Angeles home to serve a residency in psychiatry. Accompanying Sam is his beautiful fiancee Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who is finishing her doctorate in biology. The deal is that Sam and Alex are supposed to live in Sam's mother's Laurel Canyon house while Mom (Frances McDormand) resides in Malibu with her latest beau. Alas, by the time the Bostonians arrive in L.A., Mom has not only dumped her latest man, she's given him the Malibu house "because it was the only decent thing to do."
Mom, it seems, is a hot-shot record producer with a special nose for new talent and a long history of hits. So money is not in short supply. Unfortunately, houses are in short supply just at the moment, and the conditions at Mom's Laurel mansion are all the more crowded because she's producing a new record in the basement while extending the hospitality of some of her guest rooms to the British band she's working with. Space in her own bed is being shared with Ian (Alessandro Nivola), the band's vocalist and leader. This doesn't mean that there isn't any room for Sam and Alex (there's plenty, actually); it's just that the tranquil environment they'd planned on is now routinely ripe with rock riffs and the tantalizing aroma of marijuana smoke. Fun, perhaps, but suitable for deep scientific reflection, perhaps not.
From this promising set-up Laurel Canyon goes places mostly predictable and ultimately inconclusive. Sam goes off to the psychiatric hospital, where he proves himself to be kind, caring, insightful, gifted and very probably too altogether serious. He does, however, make the acquaintance of a beautiful fellow shrink named Sara (Natascha McElhone,) for whom he quickly feels lust in his heart. This is somewhat understandable seeing as Sara is given to the flirting approach made fashionable by Monica Lewinski: "Do you ever think of my performing oral sex on you?"
Meanwhile, back in the canyon, Alex just can't keep dissertating about fruit flies with so much human biology to study. Sure, it's only the crack of 2 p.m., but since everybody's up anyway, what's wrong with a brewski? No, you don't have to share that blunt; I've really got to work. But, on second thought, squeak, squeak, squeak. At Mom's house the party started in the '70s and shows no sign of slowing down. Everybody out for nude swimming. Ian? Of course. Mom? Are you kidding? Doesn't Mom flash the band just as a way of saying hello? Alex? Well, Alex is from Boston. Does underwear dipping count?
In short, a lot of tittle here with considerably less payoff than we might hope in terms of both skin and soul. I can't quite figure out what Cholodenko is up to. The more caught Sam finds himself between two gorgeous women, the less interesting he becomes. And the more we come to know the two women he's caught between, the less we like either one of them. Sara is lovely and alluring, but aside from that she has no character whatsoever. Alex, in contrast, is so closed in that she'll come back in her next life as a black hole. She's always been such an intellectual prodigy, her curiosity about the bohemian life is perfectly understandable, but beyond a truly naughty kiss and the world's least erotic strip tease, she's the scientist unwilling to do her experiments.
And you know what? I'd go see this movie again. For one thoroughly adequate reason: Frances McDormand. Though perfectly attractive, McDormand is not beautiful the way Michelle Pfeiffer is beautiful, the way the two young female stars in this movie are beautiful. But in every role she plays, from a cheating wife dodging her abusive husband's hired killer in Blood Simple, to a terrified wife testifying against her husband in Mississippi Burning, to a pregnant police chief in Fargo, to an ironic college president in Wonder Boys, to a worried mother in Almost Famous, to an aging hippie here, she is the most natural actor at work in cinema. She exudes a realness that makes you think you know her and feel sure you want to. Pitiful old Sam can't decide who to choose in this flawed flick. But I'd pick his Mom in a nanosecond.