Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) lie skin-to-skin, wrestling for a closeness that lies beyond the boundaries of their bodies and a release from the gravity of flesh and self. She undulates enthusiastically against him, her hips ecstatically reaching escape velocity. Cries break free from her throat that could be pornographic. But Beckinsale manages to deliver the line “Fuck me” with breathy innocence. Alex free-floats, enjoying the blessings of sacrificing her soon-to-be-revealed inhibitions to the gods of love.
But Sam remains earthbound. Alex’s horny commands aren’t enough to bring his walls tumbling down. After she drifts back to earth beside him, she ingenuously asks, “Did you finish?” When we later discover that Alex is attempting to complete her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation in psychology, the irony of the question reverberates: It certainly doesn’t take her highly trained powers of observation and analysis to answer it. But then again, the subject of her dissertation is “the chaotic order of the drosophilia genome” or, as a stoned musician interprets it, the sex life of fruit flies.
In Boston, at Sam and Alex’s engagement and farewell party, Sam assures his patrician father-in-law-to-be that he won’t lose Alex “to the Scientologists and vegetarians” that populate the sinister “left coast.” Sam and Alex land in Los Angeles and begin their journey down Laurel Canyon Street, the concrete umbilicus that ties the offices of Tinseltown to the middle-class bedrooms of the San Fernando Valley. Sam parks their sensible rental car next to the Porsche, the Citroën and the vintage motorbikes in his mother’s — well, Jane’s (Frances McDormand) — carport.
It becomes evident that he’s not concerned about the threat of Scientologists or vegetarians: He’s worried about Jane. “She’s really weird,” he explains with an anxious and pre-emptive embarrassment. According to him, she has “a developmental disorder.” An available residency at a local psychiatric hospital has lured Sam from the secure order of Harvard’s medical school back into the lioness’ den of his juvenile traumas, so we’re prone to give his diagnosis some credence. Sam gathers his courage with a deep breath, grips Alex firmly by the hand and dives through the door into the roar of Steely Dan urging him to “Go back, Jack. Do it again.”
Jane’s sunny lair is a manifestation of the paradoxical, chaotic order of nature. Neatly shelved albums and carefully hung gold and platinum records, tapes and CDs line the walls; instruments are strewn against them and on the floor; and a scruffy rock band sits around a table littered with beer, whiskey bottles and a tray of weed. The center of attention is Jane, the rock ’n’ roll queen of her domain. With her tangled mane of sun-bleached blond hair, she looks like a gone-to-seed biker-chick version of Venus as she takes a monstrous hit from a wildly bubbling water pipe.
Jane’s place becomes a school for scandalous relationships and the art and science of the transcendental fuck-up. The aroma of smoking grass and the sound of Jane’s young English boyfriend Ian’s (Alessandro Nivola) voice waft up from her backyard recording studio — soon seducing Alex downstairs and away from the dry dissertation on her laptop. Later, Jane’s pool almost becomes a sacrificial bath where Alex’s inhibited bourgeois innocence and even Jane’s rock-’n’-roll ethics teeter on the verge of being offered up.
Meanwhile, at the psychiatric hospital, Sam’s residency confronts him with disturbing insights. He glimpses a mirror image of his relationship with Jane in the interaction between a troubled teenage ecstasy addict and the kid’s mother. And he meets temptation in the open advances of a colleague, Sara (Natascha McElhone). Sam resists. But is his resistance due to honorable fidelity or his virtual impotence? He might find it rooted in his abject fear of letting go, opening up and allowing himself the possibility of “fucking up” (like Jane, in his eyes, the queen of the lifelong fuck-up).
Here, director Lisa Cholodenko returns to some of the themes she first examined in High Art: seductive vertigo and the free-fall from innocence into a kind of coming of age. But Laurel Canyon expands and develops them with more sophistication. Failings and their subsequent mistakes aren’t tragic here; they’re just growing pains.
Near the end, Alex explains herself to Sam: “I’m learning to fuck up.” So far, Cholodenko hasn’t.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].