Laurel Canyon (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Laurel Canyon is named after a street which has a reputation as a Greenwich Village West, home to the more bohemian types of California artists.  Frances McDormand plays a 50ish hippie, a record producer who is living that Laurel Canyon life, smokin' dope, skinny dippin', and trying to come up with a hit single for a British band whose young lead singer (played by Alessandro Nivola) has become her live-in lover.

They are joined by McDormand's ultra-straight son (Christian Bale) and his even straighter fiancée (Kate Beckinsale), who are both recent graduates of Harvard. The young couple had moved to Los Angeles to live their serious conservative life, Bale to begin his psychiatric residency, Beckinsale to write a Ph.D dissertation about some esoteric application of genetics. The young conservatives had been promised a house to themselves, but when they arrived, Bale found out that his mom would be sharing their quarters because she gave her beach house to an ex-boyfriend. Mom comes with a resident rock band. Beckinsale, therefore, must work on her dissertation while a loud, partyin' rock band plays and parties on the floor beneath her.

As time goes on, Bale finds his mother's life increasingly distasteful. Beckinsale, on the other hand, starts to be seduced by it. This situation is exacerbated when Beckinsale starts to ignore her thesis in order to smoke dope, party with the rock band, and even to have a sexual liaison with Bale's mother. Bale, without realizing what is going on, is struggling with his own attraction to a beautiful fellow resident. (Natascha McElhone)

I regret to say that it is just as good as it sounds. If it sounds like your kind of material, go for it, because it is made by professionals. The only thing that might hold you back from enjoying it is one of those crazy endings where absolutely nothing gets resolved, and it seems like there should still be about another thirty minutes to go.

If it doesn't sound like your kind of material, there's really no extra spin on the film that allows it to rise above the soap opera level described above. The McElhone character is very thinly drawn. She's basically a plot device. The other characters are more like archetypes than real people. The talented Bale is wasted in a one-dimensional role in which he mumbles quietly through most his lines. Only Frances McDormand rises above the script and brings real life to her character. In fact, that character would be completely lacking in credibility if handled by 99% of the actresses in the world, but McDormand is one of those magical geniuses who can figure out how to deliver bad lines in a way that creates a genuine human character.



  • Christian Bale shows the side of his butt when getting out of bed.
  • Kate Beckinsale shows the side of her buns in an apres-sex scene. Although she is involved in a sex scene, a strip, and a skinny dip, she never really shows anything.
  • Frances McDormand flashes her breasts to the band during production, then is later seen naked underwater in a skinny-dipping scene which is filmed from above the water.
  • Allesandro Nivola is seen in the skinny-dipping scene (naked, but he's underwater with the camera above the water)
  • Gina Doctor is naked (purse covering privates), as one of Bale's patients
  • There is a topless woman at one of the band's pool parties.

DVD info from Amazon

  • director commentary

  • featurette

  • anamorphic widescreen, 1.85:1

The film was screened at Sundance and Cannes. Critical reaction was tepid. Nobody really hated it, but it had few enthusiastic champions. Our all-star team basically scored it a 2/4, and none of them really recommended it, but the Rotten Tomatoes evaluation shows 67% positive reviews, a "fresh" rather than a "rotten", so there were plenty of critics that warmed to it. I looked through the reviews at, and they seemed to range from a lukewarm C to a lukewarm B, with universal praise for McDormand. The only score lower than C or higher than B was a D from Rolling Stone (they gave it one star and said it was cliché-ridden).


Laurel Canyon (2002) is my kind of film, and if it is your kind of film, you will love it as I did. While Lisa Cholodenko was cutting her first film, High Art, her editor, Amy E. Duddleston, who had been with her since film school and also cut Laurel Canyon, brought in a Joni Mitchell album Ladies of the Canyon, which included a painting Mitchell made of Laurel Canyon as the cover art. This was the Genesis of Laurel Canyon. Lisa, who grew up in the nearby San Fernando Valley, had driven through the canyon many times growing up, and was well aware of the Bohemian atmosphere there, and its importance in the folk/rock scene in the late 60's and early 70's, and decided a film should be made. The lead character was probably patterned somewhat on Mitchell, but had a personality before the script really got started, as a female record producer, smoker, pothead and sexually liberated woman who was producing a record in her home studio. Cholodenko intended to whip out the script quickly, but found it hard to finish the script while earning a living.

While the project was languishing without funding, Frances McDormand saw the script, and wanted to play the character of Jane. This was the sort of role she had been looking for, so she set her handlers about finding financing, and they did. She was right about this role being perfect for her, and did an amazing job bringing the character to life. She is producing a record in her Laurel Canyon home, which she has promised to her son and his fiancee. The fiancee, Kate Beckinsale quickly becomes fascinated by McDormand's life style, attitudes, young musician boyfriend and her body. Meanwhile fiancee Christian Bale is attracted to second year resident Natascha McElhone, who is unabashedly interested in him. There are two ways to see the resultant conflict, and, I think how you see the conflict will determine whether you find it a well made effort but mundane story, or an absolutely delightful character driven comedy/drama.

I am sure some see this as a film about two normal young adults trying to cope with a very strange mother and her aberrant lifestyle. The other point of view is that they are uptight, repressed over-achievers who come face to face with the realization that life can be exciting and fun. I hold to the second view, and part of the enjoyment for me was watching Beckinsale and Christian Bale begin to lose the corn cobs stuck up their respective arses. Growing up in Southern California, I knew a few people like McDormand's character, and admired them greatly. Some have even accused me of being somewhat unique and non-mainstream myself.

Cholodenko has received some criticism because the film doesn't resolve neatly. This was intentional on the part of Cholodenko, and was meant as an homage to "New Hollywood" films of the 70's like Five Easy Pieces and The Graduate, which end with a big question mark. Her homage to the Graduate goes deeper than even she realized. In an opening scene, Beckinsale tells Bale, "Not Psychiatry, but brain surgery." He might as well have said "plastics". Jane (McDormand), like Mrs. Robinson, is about to have an affair with her offspring's fiancee. Both of the kids are very conservative, and there is even an underwater swimming pool scene at the end of the film.

Scoopy also failed to mention the lesbian kisses between McDormand and Beckinsale!

Scoop's note:

An interesting question is "when does all this take place?". Tuna pointed out that it seems like an homage to 70's movies. It also seems like it takes place in the 70's. I went back and looked at it pretty carefully, and the script and visuals give off mixed messages.

  • The cars and buildings indicate that it is happening today, and the products in the stores are current products with current packaging. There is a billboard for the 2001 TV movie, "The Lost Battalion". Clearly, it must be happening now.
  • Yet the music collection assembled in the house is almost 100% vinyl.
  • The instruments in the rock band's studio include acoustic guitars, a grand piano and a cello. Essentially, they perform 1970's "folk/wimp rock" - pop songs influenced by country and folk, all with a gentle atmosphere. They could be Air Supply, Neil Young, America or maybe The Eagles. OK, there are still good groups making music like that (the sounds are actually original songs written by a critically acclaimed group called sparklehorse), but McDormand keeps talking on the phone to a record company executive who wants a hit single for radio play. I don't care how long those lads stay in that studio, there ain't no hit single comin' out of that music unless it's 1979.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: two stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 2/4, Entertainment Weekly C+.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Total gross only $3 million, distribution never reaching as many as 150 screens.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is a C-. Predictable soap opera which wastes Bale and McElhone. McDormand's performance provides the only real spirit. The story seems to take place in 1978, but is supposed to be now (I think)." Tuna says, "for me, this is a C+. Everyone agrees that it is a very well made film with a strong performance from McDormand (who is added to my list of actresses that can do no wrong). After that, your level of enjoyment depends on your frame of reference. There is no doubt in my mind that Cholodenko was 100% successful in bringing her artistic vision to the screen, and I must share her vision."

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