The sophomore jinx strikes in “Laurel Canyon,” which is in every way a pale shadow of Lisa Cholodenko’s previous feature, “High Art.” New film aggravatingly adheres to the same format as the writer-director’s arresting 1997 debut, as an attractive young woman is lured from the straight and narrow into a luridly seductive sex-and-drugs scene. This time, however, the dramatic trajectory is frightfully obvious, the characters tediously one-dimensional, the dialogue banal. Sony Classics will have to hope that the cast and some generous critical support can boost this to, at best, modest specialized B.O.
Whereas, in “High Art,” the unusual world of New York art photography provided an enticing setting for the well-observed and nuanced story of a woman who drifts from her boyfriend into an professional/personal relationship with a reclusive lesbian photog, the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene that tempts the heroine of “Laurel Canyon” looks like a caricature of itself, a universe so obviously debased and detached from reality that anyone not drunk or stoned could see the warning signs from miles away.
Unfortunately, it’s all too clear to the viewer where all this is headed when Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) arrive in Lotusland from Harvard med school to continue their scholarly pursuits. Ignoring the snobbish L.A. putdowns of her tweedy father — “Why waste yourself on the hopeless?” he sneers — Alex intends to complete her dissertation on genomics while Sam does his residency at a neuropsychiatric institute.
Engaged couple plan to stay in the canyon home of Sam’s mother Jane (Frances McDormand), although they haven’t been counting on sharing it with her. “She is so embarrassing,” Sam warns Alex, and indeed she is; along with being a renowned record producer; with a career dating back to early Joni Mitchell and Bowie, Jane still lives as though it were summer of ’68, flaunting all convention in old hippie fashion, smoking weed all day and continuing to go from one sex partner to another, the latest being a brazenly egotistical Cockney singer, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), half her age.
It’s instantly apparent why Sam got as far away from Mom as fast as he could, and chose a field — and a woman — so entirely different. And with Jane preoccupied recording the new album by Ian’s band in her home studio, where sessions routinely spill over into all-night partying, you’d think this purposeful couple would get out while the getting’s good and find some temporary digs. But no, it’s cool, everything will be all right, they say, even as Alex finds herself unable to concentrate, what with Ian lobbing endless sexual innuendo in her direction, and Sam is driven to work everyday by fellow medic Sara (Natascha McElhone), who makes eyes at him from their first meeting.
It’s all downhill from there, as the hedonistic Ian and Jane, who’s been established as having acted upon Sapphic tendencies in the past, draw Alex into a menage a trois, while Sam strenuously resists the temptation offered by Sara.
One problem is that all the participants, with the likely exception of the polymorphously libidinous Ian, really do know better than to imagine that any of these liaisons are advisable; as a result, the various close encounters leave a queasy feeling, for the viewer as well as for the participants.
Worse, the central characters of Alex and Sam are almost entirely passive, with no backbone or assertiveness to stand up for their own interests; apparently, the standards Alex has inherited from her blue-blooded family and the rigorous discipline she and her fiance have applied to years of hard study are no match for the hang-loose, chuck-your-principles-along-with-your-clothes Hotel California lifestyle.
Even afterward, when Alex tells Ian that “You’ve helped open me up,” it’s entirely unconvincing, as she seems paralyzed by her entire experience, a problem exacerbated by Beckinsale’s rigid perf.
With Sam restraining himself with Sara and increasingly frustrated by Alex’s waywardness, Bale presents a pretty tightly wound coil himself. McDormand seems to having a high old time playing exactly the sort of woman who would have horrified her character in “Almost Famous,” still wild and crazy after all these years but a perfect poster child for the cliche that living in Southern California takes an inordinate annual toll on the brain cells.
After soberly confronting the fact that she’s just messed up her son’s life by screwing around with his fiancee, her confession that “I haven’t been a very good parent” is all she can manage by way of self-insight. Nivola is creepily convincing as the responsibility-free musician.
Production values are decent, with a helpful score by Craig Wedren and songs performed by Ian and his band penned by Mark Linkus and performed by the L.A. group Folk Implosion.