The key to enjoying this new movie from indie director Cholodenko (High Art) is people, not plot. Here’s what I mean. New graduate Sam comes back to LA for his psychiatric residency with his fiancee, Alex. They are intending to move into Sam’s mother’s house, supposedly unoccupied, in Laurel Canyon. But Sam’s mother, Jane, is still living there and Jane is no ordinary mum, she’s a hip’n’groovy record producer, tokin’ on those joints and living with her much younger pop-star boyfriend. Sam isn’t happy about the arrangement, he’s a pretty uptight kinda guy, but the hedonistic West Coast lifestyle is attractive to Alex. She is seduced in all kinds of surprising ways by Jane and her wild and sexy ways (note: a few girl-on-girl moments). Meanwhile, Sam meets another intern at the hospital. Yup, it’s soapy relationship-cum-oedipal territory wishing it was an in-depth exploration of the need for fulfilment and release.
But with a cast led by the ever wonderful Frances McDormand as Jane, it’s hard not to give in to the melodrama. McDormand’s performance is sheer bravura; she shines in this role which in other hands could have been trite melodrama queen territory. She is mother as goddess and monster and she looks like she had great fun doing it. Without her the film could have been rather tepid but she is the heart and soul of the proceedings. Alessandro Nivola makes a decent fist of his role as the brash young British rock and roller and Kate Beckinsale as Alex and Christian Bale as Sam are cool and restrained but Natascha McElhone is notable only for an execrable Israeli accent.
I found the music a tad dated -“ it was the least convincing aspect of the film -“ though Nivola does his own singing quite creditably. But Cholodenko is certainly talented with a sharp visual sense and gets good work from her ensemble cast. The film also looks good and there’s some terrific cinematography. The opening take of the journey up into Laurel Canyon shouldn’t be missed.