Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are obedient, high-achieving Harvard Medical School grads, he a psychiatrist with his first job at an L.A. hospital and she an M.D. working on her dissertation. After the unpleasant picture director Lisa Cholodenko paints of the starched New England WASPs the couple are leaving behind, it is no wonder Sam and Alex find all the sunshine and freedom of California going to their heads.
In Cholodenko's sensual hands, the winding hills of Laurel Canyon are like the entry point to a dream: a vision of California as escape epitomized by the seductive helicopter shot of treetops, which then penetrates into the canyon's funky, rich hippie grotto of hand-painted mail boxes, country stores and parking lots where beat-up junkers rub hubcaps with Mercedes.
Sam and Alex arrive at their temporary headquarters, the sprawling house of his record producer mother Jane (Frances McDormand), as she huffs on a bong. Like juvenile delinquency's den mother, Jane is surrounded by the equally unruly, sexy members of the British band she's currently nurturing toward a hit record. Among them is her much-younger paramour, lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola).
The parent-child dynamic is humorously reversed in Laurel Canyon, with Sam the controlled, judgmental one who's constantly apologizing for his mother's antics and Jane the carefree, what-the-fuck, perpetual kid.
Cholodenko captures with great humor and charm Jane's consummately California lifestyle, which accommodates both the leisurely attitude of a defiant teenager and a multimillion-dollar lifestyle with one home in Laurel and another in Malibu.
Sam has been weaned on his mother's hippie values and fled them long ago for the higher ground of the Ivy League. Cholodenko shows how medicine offers Sam a reassuring grasp on his troubled psyche. Psychiatry imposes the limits his own free-for-all upbringing lacked.
But while Sam has made a disgusted break with his mother's lifestyle, Alex's wide-eyed enchantment with Jane and her shaggy boys suggests this is a sheltered good girl's first real taste of freedom; of days spent idly around the pool, smoking pot or making music. While Alex hunches over her laptop, engaged in data analysis on the reproductive habits of the fruit fly, the strains of the band's music float into her room and coax her into the fray.
Like the heroine of Cholodenko's debut High Art, Alex is an intellectual who is let out of the metaphorical ivy tower, shyly ambling down the brick path from a fretful watch at her bedroom window to the pool where Jane and Ian cavort. While Alex is coaxed into the water, Sam endures his own sexual crucible -- a seductive Israeli psychiatrist named Sara (Natasha McElhone), who engages him in a devastatingly sexy hypothetical conversation in her parked Volvo.
Cholodenko's cerebral sex scenes are some of the hottest renditions of the real give-and-take and flip-flopped power arrangements that characterize desire's psychologically muddled and complex arena.
On the admittedly slim basis of just two films, Cholodenko may be making some of the sexiest, most soulful films going. Like High Art, Laurel Canyon is a film about desire as a head-turning, mind-altering force that comes into her characters' lives and opens them up to new experiences. In the process, Cholodenko deliciously upends our usual notion of how men and women are supposed to behave, as exemplified by the androgynous, powerfully seductive Jane who seems to hold the earth mother's key to the universe in her supple grin.
Cholodenko has a humane approach to her characters, an easygoing acceptance of people despite their selfishness or stupid decisions. Her films are the antithesis of In the Company of Men director Neil LaBute's vicious denunciations of the polluted gender warfare between men and women and the destructive potential of love and lust.
There are some flaws in Laurel Canyon. The adulterous detours taken by Sam and Alex are too perfectly parallel, and there is something alienating about the almost sci-fi physical perfection of cast members Bale, Beckinsale and McElhone. A shaggier aesthetic like McDormand's might have made everything a little more human.
But all loveliness aside, Cholodenko has a true gift for choosing actors who can convey a great degree of vulnerability, longing and hesitation with real economy. She has employed both Beckinsale and Bale to great effect. Bale is sensitivity incarnate -- he makes soulfulness and a boyish hurt palpable beneath his superman exterior.
Cholodenko is clearly enraptured by people steeped in worlds of accomplishment, beauty and confidence who -- like a blend of the music industry bohos in Sugar Town or the neurotic industry hipsters of The Anniversary Party -- are nevertheless as needy and wounded as the rest of us.
Laurel Canyon is drenched in sunshine and a honeyed, gentle affection for its characters -- an all-consuming humanism laced with the director's easy-going, sweetly subversive brand of feminism. Despite human weakness -- and indulging sexual urges is just one of them -- Cholodenko offers a forgiving, gentle response to these flawed people. .